WEDNESDAY, Jan. 19 (HealthDay News) -- Taking kudzu root extract to curb drinking leads to an increase in blood ethanol levels, which might lessen the desire for more alcohol, researchers report.

In China, kudzu root extract has long been used to reduce, but not stop, alcohol consumption and dependence, but the mechanism of action has been a mystery.

Examining this ancient remedy, scientists from Harvard Medical School and Brown University assigned 12 male and female volunteers to take kudzu or a placebo for nine days and then consume various quantities of alcohol so that the researchers could evaluate alcohol-related effects.

Pre-treatment with kudzu had little to no effect on the participants' behavioral, physical or cognitive abilities, but it did cause an increase in heart rate, skin temperature and blood alcohol levels, the researchers found.

Based on these findings, the scientists suggest that an increase in blood alcohol levels could translate into increased effects from the first alcoholic drink and delay a person's desire to drink more.

The study appears online and in the April print issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

"The fact that participants experienced a rapid rise in blood alcohol levels when pre-treated with kudzu has no apparent explanation and therefore requires additional research," senior author David M. Penetar, an assistant professor of psychology in the psychiatry department at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., said in a journal news release.

They plan to use MRI scans to determine if kudzu alters blood flow in the brain.

More information

The U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism offers tips for cutting down on drinking.