This article originally appeared on VICE Asia
It might seem improbable, at a glance, that ketamine could be used as a means of tackling binge drinking behaviour. The dissociative party drug runs in fairly similar circles to alcohol—namely, environments where both are consumed en masse by people who want to escape sobriety—and is often ingested by those who are already half-pissed anyway. According to a team of researchers out of Europe, though, a single shot of ket could lead to massive decreases in people’s urges to drink: by effectively “rewriting” drinking memories and blocking reward associations that are central to addictive behaviours.
In a study run out of the University College London and published in Nature Communications, researchers found that giving problem drinkers a ketamine injection disrupts “reward memories” and leads to reduced drinking levels. It’s all just a matter of dissolving the associations a person makes between certain triggers and certain behaviours, apparently, thus allowing them to relearn healthier relationships with alcohol.
“Overconsumption disorders such as harmful drinking… and substance use disorders… are fundamentally acquired or learned behaviours,” the authors state.
In order to overcome these disorders, they note, one needs to address something called “maladaptive reward memories” or MRMs. That is, learned associations between certain stimuli (the smell or taste of beer, for example) and certain rewards (the feeling of being drunk). According to the researchers, MRMs are “a core mechanism underlying alcohol overconsumption and long-term relapsing behavior that must be ‘unlearned’ for curative amelioration of problematic drinking.”
Authors recruited 90 participants with an average age of 28—all of whom had harmful drinking tendencies yet did not have a formal diagnosis of alcohol use disorder—and induced MRMs by showing them several images of beer. Then they gave them a shot of either ketamine or saline solution, and later asked them to report whether they noticed any changes in their drinking behaviours: how much they drank, how much they enjoyed it, and how much they craved it. Researchers found that those who had been given a hit of ket reported drinking less days of the week—and consuming less alcohol when they did—for up to nine months after they were administered the shot.
“[The] lasting clinical benefits observed suggest that this one-session intervention approach should be pursued in the future treatment of alcohol related disorders,” they concluded.
It’s worth stressing that this is not the first time ketamine has been celebrated for its therapeutic potential. For years, medical professionals have been extolling the benefits of the drug for its effects on treatment-resistant depression, anxiety, and PTSD. It’s one of the most commonly used analgesics in hospitals, and in 1985 the World Health Organization inducted it into its List of Essential Medicines. It is, by many professional accounts, a miracle drug. And this research paper is just the latest addition to a growing pile of evidence indicating as much.
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