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Can a Pill Cure Gambling Addiction?

Problem gamblers will be the subject of an upcoming trial of the "anti-addiction" drug Naltrexone.

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By McCarton Ackerman

12/18/12

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The controversial "anti-addiction" pill Naltrexone is set to go to trial as a potential cure for problem gambling. Previous studies have examined Naltrexone tolerance in gambling addicts, but the new research, to be conducted at the University of Melbourne and St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne, Australia, will be the first to measure its potential effectiveness as a treatment. Nine problem gamblers will take low-dosage Naltrexone tablets and be given a range of MRI, brain and blood pressure scans to observe the effects of the drug on their brains. They will then carry out decision-making tasks that are similar to gambling. "By recording the electrical activity from the brain we are really trying to see which parts of the brain are active during decision-making tasks," says Darren Christensen, a gambling addiction expert at the University of Melbourne. "The real interest here is to understand how the Naltrexone treatment will be able to improve our participants' control over those functions, more akin to what we see in patients who don't necessarily suffer from problems with gambling."

Naltrexone been used with moderate success in treating alcoholism. But it sparked controversy in Australia when three deaths occurred at a Sydney detox clinic that used Naltrexone implants as a substance abuse treatment. Unlike the implants, low-dose Naltrexone tablets have been approved by Australia's Therapeutic Goods Administration; but some medical experts argue that administering a drug won't address the underlying issues behind problem gambling. “I guess we're living in a quick fix society now, get fit—take a pill, stop smoking—take a pill, don't have a bet—take a pill. In reality it's not like that," says Tom Simpson of Oakdene House, a problem gaming foundation in Sydney. The American Psychiatric Association's revised Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, due out next year, is expected to broaden its definition of addiction to include gambling—placing it in the same category as addiction to drugs or alcohol.

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