|Ketamine is commonly used as a recreational drug and animal tranquilizer, but the scientists' work found that the medication can be harnessed to "rewrite" drink-related memories / Photo by: Todorean-Gabriel via Shutterstock|
One dose of ketamine may help drinkers reduce their heavy alcohol consumption, researchers from the University College London found in their experimental study inspired by the growing evidence that ketamine can disrupt memories.
Ketamine is commonly used as a recreational drug and animal tranquilizer, but the scientists' work found that the medication can be harnessed to "rewrite" drink-related memories. This can be achieved if the drug is coupled with an exercise that puts the memories of alcohol consumption to the front, the researchers said.
Disrupting learned associations
In the study, the researchers recruited 90 heavy drinkers who don't have a formal diagnosis of alcohol use disorder. The participants, who were primarily beer drinkers, drink an average of 74 units of alcohol a week—that's equivalent to about 30 pints of beer and is five times higher than the recommended limit.
On the first day of the experiment, the participants looked at some images of beer and people drinking. A glass of beer was placed in front of them and was told that they can drink it after viewing the images. It was repeated on the second day, but the beer was instead taken away before the participants got to drink it.
Some of the participants were given a ketamine infusion via I.V. when the beer was taken away while others were given a placebo. Another group was also given ketamine but no psychological intervention (removal of the beer) took place.
The method yielded positive outcomes, according to The Guardian, a British daily newspaper founded in 1821. Those who were given a combination of ketamine and psychological intervention were found to have significantly reduced their urge to drink, consumed less alcohol, and drank on fewer days compared to the other two groups following a 10-day follow-up.
The said participants continued to show the effect after nine months. While all three groups were found to have reduced their drinking, those who took the ketamine therapy showed more significant improvements—cutting their average weekly alcohol consumption in half within nine months.
A very simple approach
There are temporary disruptions of learned associations when an anticipated reward—in this case, the beer—is unexpectedly removed. While the memory normally is reestablished within minutes or hours following the experience, the ketamine hinders this since it blocks a brain receptor (the NMDA) to form the memories.
The scientists hope that this short period of instability will provide an opportunity to permanently rewrite memories related to alcohol consumption.
"Learning is at the heart of why people become addicted to drugs or alcohol," Ravi Das, the study's leader, told British online newspaper The Independent. "Essentially, the drug hijacks the brain’s in-built reward-learning system so that you end up associating environmental triggers with the drug. These produce an exaggerated desire to take the drug."
Das added that their work was the first to demonstrate a "very simple, accessible approach" that they hope, with further research, can be used as a helpful treatment for excessive drinking or other drug addictions.
However, they noted that the study was experimental and not a clinical trial. Additional work is still needed, including a clinical trial that would examine if such therapy can be developed to help people with alcohol addiction.
|In the study, the researchers recruited 90 heavy drinkers who don't have a formal diagnosis of alcohol use disorder. The participants, who were primarily beer drinkers, drink an average of 74 units of alcohol a week / Photo by: Photographee.eu via Shutterstock|
Reducing alcohol consumption
The global average alcohol consumption of a person older than 15 is 6.4 liters a year—that's about 53 bottles of wine per person per year. Global estimates also show that about 1.4% of the population has an alcohol use disorder, ranging from 0.5% to 5% of the population per country.
Overall, the global statistics for people with an alcohol use disorder is at 107 million, according to scientific online publication Our World in Data. This number is concerning, considering that alcohol is the direct cause of 185,000 estimated deaths worldwide and premature deaths of nearly 75% of people younger than 70 years and 28% in those younger than 50.
This data shows the need to reduce heavy alcohol consumption and curb alcohol use disorder, and the results of the UCL study may be used to develop another method to treat this addiction. Rupert McShane, consultant psychiatrist and spokesperson for the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said replication of the experimental trial may prove to be very important.
|The global average alcohol consumption of a person older than 15 is 6.4 liters a year—that's about 53 bottles of wine per person per year / Photo by: ChameleonsEye via Shutterstock|
"At its broadest, it could imply that habits of thinking could be provoked and then usefully disrupted by a single ketamine infusion," said McShane. "If proven, this would have many therapeutic applications."
However, he warned that the method should overcome a major limitation in terms of drinking habits. Those who were given ketamine were found to be drinking on higher levels at the outset. "This is just an unlucky quirk, which sometimes happens when participants are randomly put into groups," the consultant psychiatrist explained.
"What it means is that the key result could have happened because those drinking the most will also, statistically, have tended to reduce their drinking the most. So, unfortunately, we cannot really be sure about how to interpret the data."
Be that as it may, the study gives more hope to people who would like to curb their drinking habits that one day there could really be an ultimate solution to their condition.