Single dose of ketamine may help heavy drinkers reduce their alcohol intake and fight addiction, reveals study
The findings could be turned into a helpful treatment for excessive drinking, or potentially for other drug addictions, say scientists
Just one shot of ketamine -- a drug known to produce hallucinations in higher doses -- is all that heavy drinkers need to cut back on their alcohol consumption. These findings, scientists believe, can open up new avenues to treat alcohol addiction.
What is more, heavy drinkers could reduce their alcohol intake for over nine months, taking just one dose of the drug, claim scientists from the University College London (UCL). "This is the 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," explains Dr. Ravi Das of the UCL Clinical Psychopharmacology Unit.
According to the study's senior author, Sunjeev Kamboj, who is a professor at UCL Clinical Psychopharmacology Unit, ketamine is a safe, common drug that is being explored for multiple psychiatric uses, including depression.
Central to the treatment is ketamine's role in targeting memories. These memories drive addiction behavior: heavy drinkers tend to associate a drug or alcohol with the good feelings it brings, which, in turn, lead to cravings. With ketamine in their arsenal, the team aimed to rewrite these drinking memories. “We’re trying to break down those memories to stop that process from happening, and to stop people from relapsing,” Das told ScienceNews.
In their experiment, the team included 90 heavy drinkers, who, on average, consumed roughly 30 pints of beer - five times the recommended limit. After showing the participants pictures of alcoholic drinks, they were asked to rate how strong their urge to drink was on the first day. All of them were then allowed to drink a beer.
From the second day, the study participants were deprived of beer. Instead, they were shown pictures of drinks as a memory exercise. Researchers divided these people into three groups for the experiment. The first group was shown pictures of beer to trigger their memories of beer cravings. The second group was shown images of orange juice instead of beer. Both these groups received a dose of ketamine. The third group had their memories stimulated but had no ketamine shot.
The method appeared to be successful, says the team. The first group emerged as a clear winner. Over a 10-day follow-up, the first group -- ketamine and memory exercise group -- showed significant reductions in their urge to drink. The analysis shows that this group drank less alcohol and on fewer days than the other study participants. The effects continued for over nine months. People belonging to this group reduced their average weekly alcohol consumption over the nine months by 50%.
The second group -- ketamine and no memory exercise group -- reported a significant reduction in drinking, both at the 10-day mark and nine months later -- but a much smaller one. The third group, which did not get ketamine, performed poorly in comparison. The study is preliminary and needs to be evaluated in a larger clinical trial, say the authors. And scientists will also try to optimize the treatment method and determine who it could benefit.
Commenting on the study, John Krystal, head of the psychiatry department at Yale School of Medicine told NPR, "I would say this is a very cool study and I think if the findings can be replicated, then it opens up a new window about a strategy to treat alcohol-use disorders."
He, however, warns that the treatment will need some more fine-tuning. Scientists need to figure out whether people with high tolerance to alcohol respond differently to ketamine or whether there is something inherent about ketamine that makes people want to drink less even without memory recall. "That's just the nature of research — no single study can really answer all of the questions," says Krystal.
The study has been published in Nature Communications.