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December 05, 2019

Ketamine and behavioral therapy may help alcoholics regain sobriety

The combo helps patients maintain alcohol abstinence and regain it faster after relapse, researchers find

Addiction Alcoholism
Ketamine treatment alcohol abuse Arisa Chattasa/Unsplash

Ketamine and behavioral therapy may help people with alcohol use disorder maintain abstinence, new research suggests.

Ketamine one day may emerge as a treatment option for people who suffer from alcoholism, a new study suggests. 

Researchers found that the combination of ketamine – a dissociative anesthetic – and behavioral therapy helped patients with alcohol use disorder maintain abstinence and regain it faster after relapse, according to a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

About 15 million U.S. adults suffer from alcohol use disorder, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. The condition is characterized by various factors, including consuming alcohol in large amounts, the inability to reduce alcohol intake, alcohol cravings and continued use despite adverse social consequences. 

In the study, 82% of patients who received behavioral therapy and ketamine remained abstinent at the end of the study period. By contrast, only 65% of those who received behavioral therapy and midazolam – a drug commonly used to treat alcohol withdrawal symptoms – remained abstinent. 

The patients who received ketamine also were more likely to resume abstinence after relapse than those who received midazolam. 

Researchers are not sure how ketamine helps people abstain from drinking, but they suspect it may address the vulnerabilities related to addiction, including motivation and resilience. 

"In our participants, ketamine appears to have increased resilience and reduced demoralization after a lapse," researcher Dr. Elias Dakwar, of Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, said in a statement. "Participants may have been better able to bounce back after slipping and they may have been more motivated to resume the work of recovery."

The anesthetic drug also has been shown beneficial in treating depression across multiple studies.  Esketamine, a drug mimicking the effects of ketamine, was approved to treat depression by the U.S. Federal Drug Administration — the first new depression medication approved in 35 years. 

The study included 40 participants with alcohol use disorder. Researchers randomized treatment between either a single, low dose of ketamine or a single dose of midazolam. All participants received five weeks of motivational enhancement therapy, which previously had shown success in helping people with alcohol use disorder. 

The participants received their respective drug doses during the second week of treatment. Those who received ketamine tolerated the drug well, researchers said. No side effects or misuse of the drug was reported.

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