Could a single dose of ketamine help heavy drinkers in cutting back their vice?

A team at the University College London looked into ketamine possibly being able to “rewrite” memories that shape a person’s perceptions of alcohol. In a study of theirs, participants were given ketamine which had reduced their average alcohol intake for months after the initial dose.

What is Ketamine?

As we all know, it is a club drug (special K) that can produce hallucinations. It is powerful and fast-acting when it comes to depression treatment. Some have looked into its use for PTSD treatment as well. Now, we may add alcoholism to that list.

“Treatment options for alcholism aren’t particularly effective for the majority of people…over the long term” – Ravi Das, a UCL psychopharmacologist and lead researcher of the study

Why Do They Think That Is?

Current remedies do not target treatment towards dealing with positive memories of drinking. Addiction is learning a kind of behavior in response to things in the environment. These memories are triggers that can last a long time and become ingrained.

With ketamine, researchers thought it could target a heavy drinker’s memories. The study consisted of 90 people who drank an average of four to five pints of beer a day. Researchers chose those that weren’t diagnosed with alcoholism or receiving treatment either.

Here is how the study went:
  1. Participants looked at pictures of alcoholic drinks and rated how strong their urges to drink were. They drank one beer.
  2. Divided into three groups, one group looked at pictures then received a dose of ketamine. The second group saw the pictures then received a placebo. Finally, the third group did not look at pictures and received ketamine.
  3. Results: 10 days later, group 1 significantly dropped in alcohol intake whereas group 3 and group 2 received a slightly smaller reduction in drinking. This shows that stimulating memories of drinking prior to treatment can be effective.

How you may ask? Ketamine blocks certain receptors in the brain that restabilizes a memory. Instead of thinking “drinking tastes good no matter what“, you could tell yourself “I don’t need to drink that much“. Just like with depression, it can help patients rewrite memories of their trauma.

As a more balanced approach, this experimental treatment could go on to treat other alcohol-use disorders, abuse, or substance use. People with higher tolerances to K and other complexities need to be worked out for future clinical studies. However, we eagerly await what comes next.