People looking to quit problematic drinking in the UK could one day have access to a new, quick-acting treatment to help them cope with the difficult first few weeks of sobriety: ketamine.
In a new trial taking place at the University of Exeter and University College Hospital in London, researchers are using small shots of the tranquilizer—perhaps best known in the country as a popular party drug that can ruin the bladder lining of heavy users—alongside standard psychotherapy treatments to see if it can help treat alcoholism.
"Current effects of treatments for alcoholism are at best modest, about three quarters of people return to drinking after 6 months, so there is a dire need for new treatments," said Celia Morgan, a professor of psychopharmacology at the University of Exeter, and one of the lead researchers on the study.
"It could help people who are stuck in a rut with alcoholism. It may prime your brain to take on new experiences from the world."
Ketamine has already been shown to be an effective treatment for depression, something that's done a lot to rehabilitate its reputation. As an antidepressant it's unique in that it acts very quickly, with patients often reporting an improvement in their mood over just one or two days.
That could make it ideal for treating recovering alcoholics, who often suffer from depression immediately after quitting.
"We know that in alcohol dependence, depression is a predictor of relapse in the first couple of weeks. So we're able to give people the ketamine package in the time at which they might be particularly susceptible to relapse," said Morgan.
The trial, which is funded by the UK government's medical research charity, will have participants take part in seven therapy sessions, three with shots of ketamine. Control groups will receive no drug and no therapy conditions. Ideally, the ketamine will act as a sort of stabiliser for depression, and possibly increase the power of the therapy.
Morgan said experiments with animals show that ketamine may help form neuronal connections in the brain, and that could mean that in humans the therapy will be more effective or more likely to "stick."
"There's new scientific evidence in animal models suggesting that their brains might be primed to learn more [after taking ketamine,]" she said. "So it could help people who are stuck in a rut with alcoholism. It may prime your brain to take on new experiences from the world."
"We're not going for the full-blown mystical experience"
Morgan is not the only one pursuing this theory. Elias Dakwar, a Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia University in New York, is currently recruiting patients for a similar trial that will use ketamine treatment alongside motivational therapy for alcoholism. He says that the way people's brains adapt to addiction is similar to that of depression.
"People sort of forswear their own agency and self-efficacy, and there's a sense of resignation," he said. "The thinking on ketamine's effect on depression is that it reverses depression-related adaptation through neuroplasticity."
In other words, it could make the brain more ready to create new connections and move away from old patterns of behaviour, making it an ideal companion for therapy that's meant to help people re-evaluate and change their lives.
The ketamine doses Morgan plans to use are higher than those used in standard depression treatment, but they're not quite enough to cause the sort of total dissociation that has led some scientists to class ketamine as a psychedelic drug, and far less than the maximum safe dose as an anaesthetic.
"We're not going for the full-blown mystical experience," Morgan said. "We're looking at treatment we can do within the National Health Service as well; this is something that is funded by the government, so we are looking at things that are acceptable in that context."
Both trials are still in the early stages: Morgan's started in June and is set to run until 2017, and Dakwar's should wrap up next year. But if the results are positive, ketamine's use could expand quickly. Alcoholism, like most addictions, is notoriously difficult to treat, with few effective drugs available. And according to the NHS, nine percent of men and four percent of women in the UK show signs of alcohol dependence.
"It's one of those really intractable disorders that people have been trying to find a drug therapy for some time," said Dr Dakwar.