Alcoholism is a disease. It is always discussed as a poor health choice and as a harmful habit, without people actually realizing that it is a disease and should be addressed as such. But scientists from UCL already know a way to address sudden urges to drink – a shot of ketamine.
People who are suffering from alcoholism eventually feel a strong urge to drink. This feeling is hard to fight and these people typically succumb to it. Of course, as you may understand, this urge is only present in people who are serious heavy drinkers. They are typically helped with therapy, but there is no simple pharmaceutical treatment. So scientists tried one as an experiment.
90 people with harmful drinking behaviour were invited to participate in this study. Their drink of choice – beer – they averaged 74 units of alcohol per week. None of them sought treatment. The experiment took three days. On the first day participants were promised a beer after completing a task, which involved rating the urge to drink and the perception of an incoming pleasure. The second day was the same, but the beer was taken away before they could drink it. On the third day the beer was taken away again and the experimental group got an injection of ketamine.
One group did not have to complete the same task-reward game, but was given ketamine too. While the third group was given placebo. During the 10 day follow-up scientists noticed that the experimental group did significantly better than the other ones. They were offered a beer, but did not have an urge to drink it and enjoyed it less. The average of drinking days and bingeing also fell, especially in the group that was given ketamine. The effect was sustained over a nine-month follow-up – all three groups had decreased their drinking, but ketamine+memory retrieval had a much more pronounced initial improvement and a greater overall improvement over time.
Why it works? Well, ketamine blocks a receptor in the brain that is needed to restabilise memories. In essence, ketamine does not allow the memory of anticipated pleasure to stabilize and so the urge to drink is not as strong. Dr Ravi Das, lead author of the study, said: “This is a first demonstration of a very simple, accessible approach, so we hope that with more research into optimising the method, this could be turned into a helpful treatment for excessive drinking, or potentially for other drug addictions”.
You may be wondering, if this is a safe approach. And it is – ketamine is an approved safe drug. It is not a horse tranquilliser or a party drug – it is used clinically as a sedative or pain reliever. This new application could expand its uses even further, but more research is needed.