Ketamine has recently been studied in terms of its antidepressant effects, with fairly promising results, yet some new studies have also pointed out its potential (yet admittedly mild and transient) side effects, putting more large-scale clinical deployment on hold.
However, a new study published on Wednesday, 26 November 2019, in Nature Communications has found an additional avenue of potential application for ketamine in the treatment of alcohol addiction. While fairly modest, the effects could nonetheless have significant long-term implications.
As one of the co-authors on the study Ravi Das from the University College London explained, the study hinges on the hypothesis that addiction is a type of memory disorder, whereby people learn to associate different substances with the positive feelings they generate and then find it difficult to resist the associated cravings.
“We’re trying to break down those memories to stop that process from happening, and to stop people from relapsing,” Das said.
In the study, 90 volunteers who considered their own beer drinking to be excessive, yet none of whom were formally diagnosed with alcohol addiction, were shown pictures of beer and even got to drink one in the lab.
During and after the experience, the subjects also rated their beer cravings, enjoyment of drinking, and the desire to have another one after the supply of beer was cut off by the researchers.
A few days later, the study participants were split into three groups. One group was again shown pictures of beer and served an actual drink, only to be taken away moments later to generate the element of surprise. The second group was simply shown a set of pictures of orange juice.
Then both groups received intravenous injections of ketamine, while the third group had beer memories called up, but did not receive any ketamine.
Results showed that one week after the intervention, those who had their beer memories jogged before receiving ketamine had less desire to drink, less enjoyment in drinking, and even reported having fewer drinks during that period.
At 9-month follow-up, all three groups were found to have cut their drinking habits roughly in half, which might have more to do with self-consciousness induced by participation in the study than any specific effects of the drug.
What’s more important, however, is the sharp decline in the desire to drink post-injection. Das and his team are now planning to extend their line of research in clinical trials to confirm the effect and to find out how long it lasts.
According to Das, while ketamine does come with some risks – particularly those related to abuse – its potential to reduce excessive drinking could be an easy-to-make trade-off for many people struggling with addiction.