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How Ketamine Could Be Used to Treat Alcoholism

Erasing memories isn't always a bad thing.

by Nick Rose
Jan 30 2017, 4:00pm

Usually, when people take the animal tranquilizer ketamine—also known simply as "k" or "special K"—it's to dissociate from their own bodies and vanish down the "K-hole," which can include dissociative feelings of euphoria and serious short-term memory loss (... or so we hear).

Used in veterinary hospitals and as a street drug, ketamine blocks a brain reception called NMDA, which plays a key role in creating memories. But because of these memory-erasing qualities, researchers at the University College London (UCL) have begun to look at therapeutic uses for the drug—beyond partying.

And, as fate would have it, the team is focusing on people who tend to "party" too much, anyway: heavy drinkers. While there are many relatively successful short-term treatments for alcohol abuse, it's notoriously difficult to keep alcoholics from relapsing once they re-enter their pre-treatment environments.

READ MORE: Here's Everything You Need to Know About Ketamine

Sights and sounds as subtle as condensation on a beer glass or the clinging of pints can trigger serious cravings and send problem drinkers further down the spiral of addiction. In these cases, fucking with memory could actually be a good thing, research suggests, because it could erase the association made between these subtle triggers and the "rewards" of drinking, to use Pavlovian jargon.

UCL researchers are hoping to block that association by administering ketamine to heavy drinkers (they haven't said how, in order to avoid bias in the study) and inhibiting NMDA right as the brain retrieves the memory caused by the trigger. In doing so, they hope to "disrupt" harmful patterns of behavior, The Guardian reports.

"Memories that you form can be hijacked by drugs in some people," Ravi Das, one of the future study's lead researchers, told The Guardian. "If you were an alcoholic you might have a strong memory of being in a certain place and wanting to drink. Those memories get continuously triggered by things in the environment that you can't avoid."

This might sound like a far-fetched method for treating alcoholism, but similar techniques using different drugs have been used to treat spider phobias and cocaine addiction.

Let's just hope the researchers here don't administer 100 times the recommended dosage, like in a recent caffeine study gone awry.