Research has helped us to gain a better understanding of addiction while providing the opportunity to develop new, innovative and more effective ways of treating this deadly disease. Through observation and study, we’ve amassed a plethora of different treatments and therapeutic techniques that are effective in addressing substance abuse problems.
While we’ve had small victories, our work is far from over. No matter how much we’ve learned about addiction and recovery to date, recovery from drug addiction and alcoholism remains a relatively long and arduous process. In fact, we’ve had to contend with the fact that there’s no medication capable of curing a person of addiction. But that hasn’t stopped us from testing medications as a means of treating certain aspects of the disease. For example, medications like methadone and buprenorphine are used today in maintenance therapies, allowing individuals to effectively replace chemical intoxicants with pharmaceuticals as part of a supervised treatment program.1 However, a few notable studies have investigated the use of very different medications as a type of treatment for addiction, such as the use of ketamine as a medicinal treatment for alcoholism.
What Exactly Is Ketamine?
Before we dive into the details of the study, let’s start with some clarification about ketamine, an unlikely street drug that is no stranger to headlines and news reports. Its recreational use notwithstanding, ketamine is typically seen as an anesthetic, which means it’s a drug used to induce unconsciousness for surgical procedures.2 It’s most commonly associated with veterinary medicine, but ketamine has been used on humans, too. Besides being an anesthetic, this drug is sometimes used for pain management and as an impromptu anxiolytic, or anti-anxiety medication, but these use cases are far less common. In recent years, ketamine has come to be seen a very dangerous club drug.3
Although it has viable uses when used in a medicinal setting, the recreational use of ketamine often results in unpredictable and possibly even deadly consequences. On the street, ketamine — known colloquially as “special K” — is classified as a dissociative drug along similar lines as phencyclidine (PCP), dextromethorphan (DXM) and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). Basically, ketamine is a hallucinogenic, dissociative tranquilizer that can not only produce dangerous effects but also provokes individuals into dangerous behaviors that may result in self-injury or harm to others. Individuals who use ketamine often experience a sense of euphoria as well as an out-of-body sensation, the latter of which is due to the drug’s dissociative properties. The drug’s tranquilizing effects become more prominent at higher doses with users finding it extremely difficult to move or communicate.
Ketamine as a Solution for Alcoholism
Although it’s the last drug anyone would expect to be used as a treatment for addiction, ketamine might actually be valuable to those who suffer from alcoholism, according to a study being conducted in the United Kingdom. Of course, there’s been a precedent set for the use of ketamine as an antidepressant,4 so perhaps treating alcoholism isn’t that much of a stretch.
The study — based at the University of Exeter and University College Hospital in London — attempts to show that an individual suffering from alcoholism might benefit from a small one-time dose of ketamine.5 Led by lead researcher Ravi Das, the genesis of the study was the realization that ketamine has a major effect on memory and can be disruptive to the formation of new memories. In fact, the substance is more than merely disruptive to memory formation. Previous studies have shown that the use of ketamine actually causes memory loss,6 meaning that ketamine can essentially erase memories that were already formed and stored in the mind. It was this relationship between ketamine use and memory loss that inspired the study and led the team through their initial research.
Individuals with substance abuse problems often have certain people, places, things and situations that they associate with their substance abuse. Typically, these associations are made when an individual recalls an event that involves both substance abuse and that person, place, thing or situation. Alternately, mind-altering substances can change and distort memories that are preexisting in the brain, forming synthetic associations where they previously didn’t exist. When a person, place, thing or situation provokes strong thoughts of alcohol or drugs, it’s typically called a trigger. An individual must learn how to cope with these triggers as part of the recovery process because triggers incite strong cravings for alcohol or drugs.7 However, if these associations between substance abuse and the people, place, thing or situation could be broken, a person may be far less likely to experience cravings and, therefore, could have an easier time overcoming substance abuse.
“Memories that [a person] form[s] can be hijacked by drugs,” Das said in an interview. “People can successfully quit using over the short-term while being monitored in a hospital, but when they return home, they’re exposed to those environmental triggers again.”
There are a couple reasons why Das and his co-researchers believe ketamine could be a solution. As mentioned previously, a number of studies have found ketamine to be effective in treating severe depression. Since depression has been identified as risk factor for relapse, it follows that ketamine could be helpful as a treatment for alcoholism because it could help with any potential depressive symptoms.8 Another possible use for ketamine as a treatment for alcoholism involves the effects of ketamine on memory. The implication is that ketamine could help with alcoholism by essentially overwriting the memories of triggers that involve alcohol and substance abuse.9 In short, ketamine could help a person overcome alcoholism by altering and reforming neural connections in the brain.
The researchers involved in the study are currently in the early stages of their trials, so it’s yet to be seen whether their theories involving the use of ketamine to treat alcoholism will be proven. However, the preliminary findings and projections for the study are quite promising and worth keeping an eye on in the future.
By Dane O’Leary