Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a severe problem in the United States, with heavy alcohol use causing approximately 95,000 deaths annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Alcohol Use Disorder on the Rise
The COVID-19 pandemic has been associated with a significant increase in risky drinking and the development of AUD, with many people turning to alcohol as a coping mechanism during these uncertain times. This rise in alcohol consumption has led to an increase in the number of people suffering from AUD, highlighting the need for effective treatments to address this growing problem.
AUD is a chronic condition characterized by the compulsive use of alcohol, despite harmful consequences. It often involves physical and psychological components, such as addiction cravings and mental health issues, and requires a comprehensive treatment approach to address these underlying issues.
Ketamine may have great potential as a treatment for AUD, as it appears to target both addiction cravings and mental health aspects of the condition. According to Dr. Monty Ghosh, an addiction specialist and assistant clinical professor at the University of Alberta Hospital in Canada, “AUD is a complex disease to treat, and an approach that manages addiction cravings and mental health aspects are key, and it sounds like ketamine does target both.”
Researchers in the United Kingdom conducted a phase 3 clinical trial to assess the effectiveness of using ketamine to treat alcohol use disorder. The trial, organized by scientists at the University of Exeter, involved 280 participants with severe alcohol use disorder at seven sites across the UK. This trial builds on previous research from the Exeter team, published in January 2022, which suggested that low doses of ketamine in combination with psychological therapy may help people with severe alcohol use disorder stay sober for more extended periods.
This clinical trial was the first of its kind to examine whether a low dose of ketamine, a drug commonly used as an anesthetic in humans and animals, can prevent relapse when used in conjunction with therapy. The study’s lead author, Professor Celia Morgan of Exeter, stated, “Alcoholism can destroy lives, and we urgently need new ways to help people cut down. We found that controlled, low doses of ketamine combined with psychological therapy can help people stay off alcohol for longer than placebo.”
The results showed that those who received ketamine in combination with therapy were completely sober for 87% of the time (162 out of 180 days) over 6 months, significantly higher than any other groups. This group was more than 2.5 times more likely to remain completely abstinent after the trial than those who received a placebo.
How Can Ketamine Help?
One of the ways that ketamine may be able to help with AUD is by inhibiting the NMDA receptor, which is involved in the regulation of mood and behavior. By inhibiting this receptor, ketamine may be able to rapidly reduce symptoms of depression, including suicidal thoughts, which are often present in individuals with AUD. This rapid reduction in symptoms may be particularly beneficial for individuals who are in crisis and may be at higher risk for relapse.
In addition to its effects on the NMDA receptor, ketamine may also promote the growth of new neurons, which may be involved in the long-term relief of symptoms such as suicidal ideation by rerouting the brain away from hyperactive areas associated with negative reward signals.
It is important to note that while ketamine may be a promising treatment option for AUD, scientists found the most effective results among those who underwent ketamine therapy and psychotherapy.
Ketamine and Therapy
The combination of ketamine and therapy can be particularly effective in treating alcohol use disorder (AUD). Utilizing the neuroplasticity that ketamine induces, therapy can establish new guided thought patterns and behaviors while the brain is reforming connections. This can make it easier for individuals with AUD to engage in psychological therapy and learn new coping strategies, as negative thoughts or feelings do not hinder them.
Ketamine’s short-term relief often can’t be overstated, but therapy can serve as a longer-term stabilizer, helping individuals with AUD work through the underlying issues that contribute to their addiction and develop the skills and strategies to maintain long-term recovery. Researchers note that those most successful in overcoming AUD are typically willing to actively engage in their recovery and continue to work on their problems over time.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been associated with a significant increase in risky drinking and the development of AUD, highlighting the need for new treatments. While ketamine therapy in conjunction with talk therapy can be highly beneficial, uncontrolled use of ketamine can be problematic, and it is essential that the proper doses are administered in conjunction with the guidance of a trained therapist. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend limiting alcohol intake to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women and avoiding alcohol altogether for pregnant individuals or those taking certain medications. Alcoholics Anonymous offers resources for those who believe they may have an AUD.
To learn more about ketamine as a treatment option for alcohol use disorder, check out this article covering the latest clinical study: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-devon-63943002