New U.K. translational research effort will test if ketamine can halt alcoholism

Ketamine has been a popular drug to study in academic circles for years now. It’s known to lift depression and suicidal thinking, if only temporarily, in large groups of patients. Most know it as an old horse tranquilizer valued in party circles for its hallucinogenic qualities. And now the Medical Research Council in the U.K. is funding a study to see if the drug may also be useful in ending alcoholism.

Like a number of hallucinogenics, ketamine has shown some ability to open up the brain to making new connections, a certain kind of open-mindedness that may allow some people to drop old habits, like heavy drinking. Perhaps the same antidepressant effect tracked repeatedly in studies will also play a role here.

So, keying off mice studies, investigators will combine a low dose of ketamine over several weeks with psychotherapy, to see if the combination can prevent a relapse. The control group will get a saline solution and then everybody will wear an ankle monitor that can track how much they’ve been drinking.

There are several programs in the clinic that are attempting to take ketamine and use a new formulation that can provide durable benefits without the side effects. AstraZeneca tried and failed. J&J is still at work.

The researchers say that using a low dose should restrict the chances of side effects to odd “changes in their vision and hearing” during infusion. And if they’re successful, that could be seen as an acceptable tradeoff.

Dr Kathryn Adcock, head of neurosciences and mental health at the MRC said this:

Alcoholism can have a terrible impact on both the individual and those around them, but current treatments for alcohol dependence are associated with high relapse rates – with people often return to drinking after only a short time of abstinence.

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