Can ketamine help reduce gambling addictions?

A UK university is about to start a study that will assess whether the class A drug ketamine can play a role in reducing problem gambling rates, but what’s the background of the research and the current state of affairs with UK problem gambling? 

A new research project run by the University of Exeter and the addiction treatment provider  Awakn Life Sciences is set to assess whether ketamine can help address gambling addictions and prevent the urge to gamble. 

To be more specific, the study will examine ketamine’s influence on human memory, seeing if it’s possible that doses of the drug can break the pattern of positive reinforcement associated with gambling addictions while preventing the urge to gamble. 

The lead researcher is Celia Morgan, a world-renowned professor of psychopharmacology whose past research has focused on the benefits and side effects of recreational drugs on mental processing, mental health and neurobiology.

Ketamine and its potential effects on problem gambling

So why Ketamine, and what are its possible benefits for problem gamblers? Ketamine is a class C drug in the UK that first appeared in the 1960s as an animal anaesthetic. For human use, it’s a psychedelic drug that can also be used as an anaesthetic and has been found to reduce suicidal thoughts, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety. 

Ketamine’s effect on memories associated with alcohol misuse has been studied with the focus on re-writing the maladaptive reward memories contributing to substance misuse – put simply, breaking the cycle through changing the memories that say the addictive behaviour leads to reward. 

Breaking the cycle 

During the study, participants who took ketamine and undertook therapy stayed sober longer than other groups. The authors of this new trial are working off the same hypothesis that ketamine can break down the reward memories and alter addictive behaviour in gamblers.

As part of the project, researchers will reactivate gambling memories and then update them by administering ketamine to weaken the memory trace in participants. The expected benefits are that by weakening the memories leading to impulsive behaviour, problem gamblers have a greater chance of breaking the cycle and stop gambling. Indeed, many problem gamblers cannot stop gambling, even when they are losing, which is believed to be caused by their positive memories of previous wins.  

This research however will not include psychotherapy, unlike the earlier alcohol misuse study, meaning the fundamental effects of the drug will be clearer. 

A long history of drug use in research and policy

This is not the first time illegal drugs have been used in research or policy. Looking back, alcohol has long been used in the military as a form of liquid courage in preparation for battle and as an anaesthetic for injury. For example, rum rations for UK sailors were only retired in the 1970s. 

The use of stimulants like cocaine and amphetamines was widespread in both world wars. For decades the US army conducted secret experiments with psycho chemicals. In the 60s, they tested LSD as an “enhanced interrogation technique”, and this was only a small part of their “psychochemical warfare” testing, which attempted to replace traditional weaponry with drugs.

More recently, as attitudes towards drugs have liberalised, attention has pivoted to the effects of drug use on mental health, with research focusing on psilocybin (magic mushrooms) for treating depression have been widely examined and lauded as a successful treatment option, with even the creation of a low dose psilocybin nasal spray to treat PTSD.

Problem gambling in the UK

Attitudes towards problem gambling in the UK have changed over recent years. While many in the industry celebrate the low rates of gambling addiction – according to the UK Gambling Commission, the current rate of UK problem gambling is statistically stable at 0.2% of the population, with those at moderate risk at 0.9% and low risk at 1.4% of the population; these rates have been reducing over time thanks to multiple regulatory measures, research and support efforts. 

Mirroring health measures and perspectives related to tobacco and alcohol, there is also a view that any damage caused by gambling is too much and therefore any gambling activity should be avoided. However, industry stakeholders have always argued that moderation is the key to enjoying gambling, much like alcohol in fact; and the efforts to reduce the levels of problem gambling in the UK are an ongoing endeavour that has industry-wide support from UK slot sites, affiliates, charities and the gambling commission working in unison to protect players better.

As with most cases of new research and regulation, most UK operators view responsible gambling measures as providing the industry with longevity and sustainability through maintaining player safety and gambling as a source of entertainment and fun. 

Thus it’s likely that the industry will welcome any new research. However, as ketamine use remains illegal in the UK, should the study report positive results, they will need to be repeated in subsequent medical trials. If the trials are successful, medical professionals will regulate the use of the drug. So while the study is a significant step forward in exploring problem gambling, it’s unlikely to be used as a treatment plan soon.

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