A prescription drug used to treat anxiety may soon be able beat alcoholism, according to researchers at Cambridge University. Scientists believe that Propranolol, a beta-blocker drug, obstructs certain memories in the brain that are known to trigger relapses among alcoholics.

The breakthrough followed earlier research which showed the drug could delete a stimulus in rats' brains if the animals had a craving for drink. The study will be the first to look at the effects of disrupting drug memories on alcoholics. Researchers believe the drug may help prevent what they call "cue-drug memory" – when memories of certain people and places that are closely linked to with the craving for alcohol prompt an unconscious impulse to drink.

Propranolol targets the beta-adrenergic receptors in the brain which help to create a strong emotional memory. Scientists believe the drug may work by stripping emotion from the memory. The discovery could revolutionise approaches to the treatment of chronic alcoholism.

The Medical Research Council is now funding further research into the phenomenon as part of a £2.7m five-year programme.

The research team at Cambridge University's Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute,which is investigating addictions, aims to recruit dozens of alcoholics later this year to take part in the first ever experimental medical trials using Propranolol.

Dr Amy Milton, who is leading the research, said: "Traditionally, memory was viewed as similar to a book, which can be shelved but never changed once printed. We now think that memory is more like a word processing document – you can save it and then recall it, at which point you can adapt or even delete its contents." She will be presenting the team's initial findings at this week's Cambridge Science Festival.