Alcoholism is a problem that thousands of people deal with on a daily basis. But there may be a surprising new tool on its way to help treat this addictive disorder: a hallucinogenic drug.
According to a report in Nature Communications, researchers suggest a single dose of ketamine can help weaken the desire to drink beer. While the drug’s effect was modest, there is still plenty of room for optimism, according to addiction researcher David Epstein.
“If a seemingly small one-time experience in a lab produces any effects that are detectable later in real life, the data are probably pointing toward something important,” explained Epstein, who works for the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Baltimore.
Addiction is considered a memory disorder, so finding a way to stop the memories that trigger cravings for beer was a key component of the ketamine study.
“We’re trying to break down those memories to stop that process from happening, and to stop people from relapsing,” said Ravi Das, a co-author of the study and a psychopharmacologist at University College London.
To conduct the study, Das and the research group recruited 90 people who admitted to drinking too much beer. Participants were exposed to pictures of beer, drank one in the lab and rated their cravings, enjoyment of drinking and their desire to drink another one.
The participants returned a few days later and were divided into three groups for further examination. The researchers utilized different methods to test the effect of ketamine and the different triggers and memories associated with drinking beer. Interestingly, the results showed that the people who had their beer memories jogged before receiving ketamine reported both a lower desire and less enjoyment for beer.
Nine months after the study concluded, all 90 participants had cut their beer consumption in half. Surprisingly, that even included those who did not receive a dose of ketamine. Epstein explained that the full-scale reduction could be due to the self-awareness that comes from enrolling in a study.
“Behavior can change for all sorts of reasons that aren’t specific to the experimental treatment,” he said.
While the research on ketamine’s short-term effects on drinking is far from over, the early results are promising. The research group plans on conducting clinical trials on people with drinking problems. In addition, they also want to test other problematic memories, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
Of course, with any drug, there are concerns about abusing ketamine. But the upside of its ability to weaken the lure for alcohol makes it a worthwhile option to explore.