New Ketamine Treatment Seeks To Cure Alcoholism

By Kelly Burch 01/26/17

Ketamine is already being used to treat depression, but could it also work on alcoholism?

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Researchers are investigating whether the tranquilizer ketamine can be used to treat alcoholism, by rewriting memories in order to reduce cravings and the likelihood of relapse. “There is evidence that it could be useful as a treatment for alcoholism,” Ravi Das, one of the lead researchers of the project at University College London, told The Guardian

Researchers believe that the treatment could work by weakening or even erasing memories. Ketamine blocks a brain receptor that is critical to forming memories. By calling upon a memory and then interrupting it, researchers believe they could override established memories. Similar tactics with other drugs have been shown to work for curing phobia of spiders and for cutting cocaine addiction in rats. 

The University College London study will feature about 90 participants who are heavy drinkers. Researchers will trigger an alcohol memory by placing a beer in front of participants and then surprising them in order to interrupt the memory. Participants will then be given either a high dose of ketamine or a placebo, and monitored for a year to see if there are any changes in drinking patterns. 

Researchers hope that rewriting the memories tied to addiction will help with one of the most problematic phases of getting sober. “The main problem is the really high relapse rate after treatment,” said Das. “People can successfully quit using over the short term while they’re being monitored in the hospital ... but when they return home they’re exposed to those environmental triggers again.”

One woman said that since her participation in the study, she has been more aware of her drinking habits. “In the past, there were occasions where I would be drinking and I’d be on autopilot ‘Let’s get another drink,’” she said.

But even if the trial is a success, there are still barriers. With medication-assisted treatment already stigmatized by many in the addiction and recovery communities, administering a drug which is frequently used recreationally, like ketamine, is a controversial solution.

“There’s just the general social attitude that everything that’s illegal is terrible. There will obviously be that kind of narrow-sighted pushback,” said Das. “But if it’s safe and effective enough it should be recommended.”

At the Medical University of South Carolina, Michael Saladin is looking into similar treatments for smoking cessation. “I am convinced that there is sufficient evidence to believe that memory reconsolidation can be harnessed for clinical purposes,” he said. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.