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Ketamine may treat harmful drinking behavior by ‘rewriting drinking memories,’ researchers say

(CNN)A single dose of ketamine may be able to curb harmful drinking behavior by “rewriting drinking memories,” according to a study published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.

The researchers say that, when coupled with an exercise involving beer that pulls memories of alcohol to the foreground, there’s evidence that the drug can disrupt how the brain associates these cues — like the smell or taste of beer — to its perceived “reward,” making relapse less likely.
“It’s those kinds of associations that we’re trying to break down,” explained study author Ravi Das, an associate professor at University College London who specializes in psychopharmacology. “We’re not talking about people’s explicit recollection of the fact that they drank in the past.”
Ketamine is a powerful medication used in hospitals primarily as an anesthetic, though it has also been used illegally as a club drug, often referred to as Special K. It generates an intense high and dissociative effects.
“It’s an intriguing approach that builds on existing literature in a couple of areas,” said Dr. Henry Kranzler, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, who was not involved in the study.
Earlier studies have explored ketamine for alcohol, cocaine and opioid addiction — but many had small sample sizes, limited follow-up and lack of placebo, according to experts. Das said it’s also difficult to blind participants to whether they’ve received ketamine or a placebo because of its “strong effects.”
Other research has shown the drug’s potential to counter depression and suicidal ideation. In March, a close relative of ketamine — called esketamine and sold under the name Spravato in the form of a nasal spray — was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for treatment-resistant depression.
The new study recruited 90 “beer-preferring” people with potentially harmful drinking patterns from internet ads and separated them into groups: those who underwent an exercise involving alcohol-related cues and received intravenous ketamine in a controlled environment; those who completed the exercise but received a placebo; and those who received ketamine alone. While the authors said participants “showed a clearly harmful and problematic pattern of drinking,” they were not seeking treatment for an alcohol use disorder and had not been formally diagnosed with such.
But there was some heterogeneity between the groups. While the first group reduced their drinking to the largest degree, they also happened to drink more to begin with — “and therefore their consumption was more likely to decline, a phenomenon known as regression to the mean,” explained Matt Field, a professor of psychology at the University of Sheffield in the UK, in an emailed statement.
After the treatment, there wasn’t a significant difference between the three groups in terms of how much alcohol they drank. Nine months later, average weekly consumption was roughly the same across the board. The authors say this may have been influenced by losing participants to follow-up.
Field said the findings are “promising,” but the claim that the full treatment protocol “leads to ‘unprecedented’ long-lasting reductions in alcohol consumption are not justified on the basis of this data.”
Das pointed out other layers to the data, however: Those who completed the exercise and received ketamine had less desire to drink, and they drank less frequently. In addition, there was a correlation among that group between concentrations of ketamine and its breakdown products in the blood, and the reduction in how much participants drank.
“People all vary in how quickly they metabolize” and excrete ketamine and its byproducts, Das said. “That level of individual variability with ketamine actually predicts drinking outcomes subsequently.”

The group that received ketamine alone saw improvements, too, but not to the same degree as those presented with alcohol-related cues, according to the authors.

Kranzler said the study is an intriguiguing proof-of-principle that he suspects will spur subsequent studies needed to replicated these findings.
But an important question, he added, “is to what degree could combined psychosocial intervention — cognitive behavioral intervention, for example — synergize with or at least augment the pharmacological effect” of ketamine.
“That’s the kind of treatment study that I think would make a lot of sense,” he added. “So this wouldn’t be used in isolation.”

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A dose of ketamine could lessen the lure of alcohol

The hallucinogenic drug may help treat addiction by weakening past memories of drinking

Ketamine can reduce harmful drinking by pharmacologically rewriting drinking memories

A single dose of ketamine may cut down problematic drinking. Taken in the right context, the hallucinogenic drug may be able to weaken the pull of the cues that trigger people to drink beer, researchers report November 26 in Nature Communications.

Ketamine’s influence on people’s drinking was modest. Still, the results might be a time when “small effects tell a big story,” says addiction researcher David Epstein of the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Baltimore. “If a seemingly small one-time experience in a lab produces any effects that are detectable later in real life, the data are probably pointing toward something important.”

The study hinges on the idea that addiction, in a way, is a memory disorder. People learn to associate a drug or alcohol with the good feelings it brings. Cues in the world, such as the smell or picture of a beer, can trigger those memories — and cravings. “We’re trying to break down those memories to stop that process from happening, and to stop people from relapsing,” says study coauthor Ravi Das, a psychopharmacologist at University College London.

Ketamine is an anesthetic, that at lower doses, has also shown promise as a treatment for severe depression (SN: 3/21/19). The drug can also affect memories. One of ketamine’s effects in the body is to interfere with a molecule called NMDA, which is involved in reforming memories after they are called up.

Das and his colleagues recruited 90 people who said they drank too much beer, though none was formally diagnosed with alcohol addiction. First, participants were exposed to pictures of beer and even got to drink one in the lab. During the experience, they rated their beer cravings, enjoyment of drinking, and after the beer was gone, the desire to have another one.

A few days later, the participants returned to the lab and were split into three groups. People in one group were again shown pictures of beer to jog their memories. To make the memory recall extra strong, the researchers served up actual beer, but then, in a twist, took it away before participants could drink it. The bait-and-switch maneuver was key, Das says. “You have to generate the element of surprise,” he says.

As a comparison, a second group was shown images of orange juice instead of beer. Then people in both of these groups got an intravenous dose of ketamine. A third group had beer memories called up, but received no ketamine.

A week after the procedure, the people who had their beer memories jogged before receiving ketamine reported less desire to drink, and less enjoyment of beer — a reduction that wasn’t as strong for the other two groups of participants. The people who had their beer-drinking memories jogged and received ketamine also reported drinking less.

The results were surprising, Das says, because attempts to curb people’s drinking in their daily lives are rarely successful (SN: 8/9/17). “You get jaded. Not a lot seems to work,” he says.

Nine months after the procedure, all of the participants, including those who hadn’t received ketamine, had roughly halved their beer drinking — an across-the-board drop that could be explained by the self-awareness that comes simply from enrolling in a study, says Epstein. “Behavior can change for all sorts of reasons that aren’t specific to the experimental treatment,” he says. The interesting thing here, he says, is the initial decline in drinking among people who had ketamine while they were reminded of beer.

More research is needed to confirm ketamine’s short-term effect on drinking, and see how long it might last. Das and his colleagues plan on testing ketamine on more people with problematic drinking habits in clinical trials. The researchers are also trying to weaken other sorts of problematic memories, such as those involved in post-traumatic stress disorder.

As a drug that can be abused, ketamine comes with baggage that may make people reluctant to see it as a way to treat addictions. But if a single dose of ketamine can slow excessive drinking, “then that’s quite an easy trade-off from a health perspective,” Das says. “If it works, it works.”

A Single Dose Of Ketamine Might Help Heavy Drinkers, Study Finds

What if a single dose of ketamine could make a heavy drinker dramatically cut back on booze?

A team at University College London thinks that ketamine may be able to “rewrite” memories that shape a person’s relationship with alcohol. Scientists say that participants who were given ketamine as part of an experimental study dramatically reduced their average alcohol intake for months after the initial dose. Their research was published Tuesday in Nature Communications.

Ketamine — sometimes known as a club drug called Special K that can produce hallucinations — has been shown to be a powerful and fast-acting treatment for depression. Researchers also are looking into whether ketamine can help patients with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The U.K. findings may signal yet another use for the drug for hard-to-treat conditions.

In general, the treatment options for alcoholism “aren’t particularly effective for the majority of people, particularly over the long term,” says Ravi Das, a UCL psychopharmacologist and the study’s lead researcher.

 

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