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  • Writer's pictureMartin Polanco

Could Ketamine Be the Answer for Alcohol Addiction?

Originally posted May 31, 2018

Alcohol addiction is the most widespread form of substance abuse disorders. Not only is alcohol legal, but it is typically encouraged as a way to relax and have a good time. According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIH), there are over 15 million people in the US alone that abuse alcohol on a regular basis. And while there are countless rehab options to treat alcoholism, it’s widely known that traditional rehab doesn’t always work.

The very programs that have been touted to tame the alcoholic mind for almost a hundred years (think AA and other 12-step programs) only come with a 5-10 percent success rate. And when it comes to something as important as overcoming an addiction to alcohol, the last thing anyone wants to be is a statistic. It’s reasons such as these that have countless people turning to alternative forms of treatment to overcome addictions to alcohol and other substances.

Can Ketamine Help with Alcohol Addiction?

Research is in the works that could help countless people suffering from alcoholism overcome their addiction for good. Some scientists are suggesting that ketamine (currently considered a recreational drug) could be an excellent aid in the treatment of alcohol addiction.

Researchers at the University College of London (UCL) are testing whether or not ketamine can be effective in changing negative patterns of behavior associated with alcoholism by erasing the memories and triggers that lead to substance abuse and addiction. While results from these tests won’t be published for more than a year, researchers behind the study remain hopeful.

The research that began in 2016 has showed promise in the way ketamine can disrupt the formation of memories. The scientists behind the study believe it is this property that could be used to help get rid of the memories that trigger addiction and negative patterns of behavior. According to Ravi Das, one of the researchers behind the study, “Memories that you form can be hijacked by drugs in some people. If you were an alcoholic you might have a strong feeling of being in a certain place and wanting to drink. Those memories get triggered by things in the environment you can’t avoid.”

Taking a Look at Triggers

These are the triggers that make relapse such a prominent misfortune in the world of addiction recovery. Anyone who has ever unsuccessfully tried to quit drinking or doing drugs, knows how quickly these triggers can get under your skin and spark the desire to use. Things like seeing a certain person someone used to drink with, hearing the clink of glasses, walking by the bar and seeing people outside smoking, and even the simple act of returning home from work can easily set off the urge to drink.

It’s thought that treatment with ketamine can help a person erase the memories associated with drinking so everyday situations don’t elicit the urge to drink. Because there is growing knowledge that memories aren’t as stable as originally presumed, it’s believed the memories that trigger addictive behavior can be manipulated.

Ketamine is known to block the brain receptor NMDA, which is necessary for the formation of memories. And because each time our brain retrieves a memory, the neural connections that program it are momentarily disrupted, it is believed that giving a person ketamine just as the memory has been disrupted can help to diminish the memory, or get rid of it completely.

The Study of Ketamine on the Alcoholic Mind

The study taking place at UCL involves scientists intentionally triggering memories in the minds of heavy drinkers or alcoholics. And while the research team isn’t revealing all details of the study, they believe that by placing a beer or other alcoholic drink in front of a person and then disrupting whatever memory was triggered, they will be able to intentionally help them overcome the memories that lead to the urge to drink.

After patients are surprised they will be given either a ketamine mixture that contains a high dose or a placebo. Research scientists plan on following up with participants in a year to see if their drinking has stopped, slowed down, or changed at all.

Das is aware that regardless of how well ketamine works in relation to alcohol addiction not everyone will embrace it for what it’s worth. “There’s just the general social attitude that everything illegal is terrible,” he says. “There will obviously be that kind of narrow-minded pushback. But if it’s safe and effective enough it should be recommended.”

Ibogaine and ayahuasca are two alternative treatments that have showed great promise in treating addiction in an unconventional way. As more and more people turn toward other possibilities of treating addiction, we will discover more information on what works and what doesn’t. Ketamine is one such alternative that is showing the potential to treat addiction in a way nothing else has done up to this point. With research underway, it is just a matter of time before this party drug could be looked at in an entirely different light.

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