In An Experiment, Ketamine Helped Alcoholics Drink Less

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In An Experiment, Ketamine Helped Alcoholics Drink Less
In An Experiment, Ketamine Helped Alcoholics Drink Less

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In an experiment, ketamine helped alcoholics drink less

A single dose of ketamine combined with psychotherapy can help curb alcoholism, a small study found. The goal of the scientists was to "rewrite the memories" of drinking in people prone to alcohol abuse.

In an experiment, ketamine helped alcoholics drink less
In an experiment, ketamine helped alcoholics drink less

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A single dose of ketamine, combined with psychotherapy, can help curb alcoholism by "rewriting drinking memories." This was shown by a small study by scientists from University College London and published in Nature Communications.

Although ketamine is better known as the "club drug" and anesthetic in veterinary medicine, ketamine is used as a pain reliever and anesthetic in many countries. In the spring of 2019, its isomer, esketamine, was approved for the treatment of depression in the United States.

“We found that after very quick and simple experimental treatment, alcoholics experienced long-term improvement. Learning is at the heart of why people become addicted to drugs or alcohol. Basically, the drug hijacks the brain's built-in reward learning system so that you end up linking external triggers to the drug. This creates an exaggerated urge to take drugs,”explained the study's lead author, Dr. Ravi Das.

Researchers have tried to "rewrite" people's memories of drinking. These memories are often associated with triggers around people, such as certain friends to have a drink with. Manipulating memories when they become malleable gives scientists hope to prevent relapses of alcoholism.

The experiment involved 90 heavily drinking beer drinkers with no diagnosed alcoholic disorder and no treatment. On average, they drank about 17 liters of beer per week - five times the recommended limit.

On the first day, each participant was given a glass of beer and allowed to drink it after viewing pictures of the beer and drinking people. And the next day, after a similar procedure, the beer was taken away. The first group of participants was then given intravenous ketamine and a psychotherapy session aimed at correcting memories. The second group was injected with ketamine, but without psychotherapy, and the third was just a placebo.

Sudden deprivation of anticipated reward is known to temporarily disrupt learned associations. Usually, memory is restored within minutes or hours after that, but ketamine blocks the NMDA receptors in the brain that are needed to form memories. This short period of instability, according to scientists, provides an opportunity for a more thorough rewriting of the memories of drinking.

The method proved to be successful. Over the 10-day period, people who received ketamine in combination with psychotherapy experienced a significant decrease in the desire to drink, they did it less and less often than other study participants.

The effect persisted for nine months of observation. Participants in all three groups began to drink less, but after treatment with ketamine and psychotherapy, the overall improvement was much more pronounced - the average alcohol consumption during this time decreased by half.

"Ketamine is a safe, common drug that is being studied for a variety of psychiatric purposes, including depression … The benefit of our study, along with its strong long-term effects on drinking, is that it relies on a deep understanding of the drug's action in the brain to achieve its effect." - said the senior author of the study, Sanjeev Kamboj (Sunjeev Kamboj).

Research has shown that ketamine, when combined with psychotherapy, can provide a simple and affordable way to effectively reduce binge drinking in people with alcohol problems. Scientists speculate that it can also be used to treat other types of addiction. However, it must be borne in mind that this was an experimental and not a clinical study. Further work is needed to optimize the treatment method and determine who can benefit from it.

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