Giving alcoholics low doses of ketamine could help them stay sober, according to a study.
University of Exeter experts tested the effects of the illegal party drug on 96 addicts, who drank the equivalent of 50 pints of beer per week.
They were all split into four separate groups to test the effects of taking ketamine, on top of routine talking therapy.
Volunteers given ketamine were two-and-a-half times more likely to still be sober six months later, compared to addicts given a placebo.
Results also showed that those who received the drug, which is also used as a horse tranquilliser, were abstinent for 162 of 180 days, on average. For comparison, the figure stood at around 130 days for the placebo groups.
Professor Celia Morgan and colleagues also discovered patients given ketamine had lower rates of depression and better liver function six months later.
She said: ‘Alcoholism can destroy lives… We urgently need new ways to help people cut down.
‘We found controlled, low doses of ketamine combined with psychological therapy can help people stay off alcohol for longer than placebo.’
Professor Morgan said the results, published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, were ‘extremely encouraging’.
The graph shows the average percentage of days over the six-month study that the participants in each of the four groups were sober for. Those prescribed ketamine and psychotherapy did not drink for 87 per cent of the trial (162 of the 180 days), followed by 81.7 per cent alcohol abstinence among those given ketamine and alcohol education classes (147 days). Meanwhile, those given a placebo drug and therapy were sober for just 77.2 per cent of the six months (139 days) and those given the placebo drug and alcohol education class did not drink alcohol for 70 per cent of the study (126 days)
Three-quarters of alcoholics return to heavy drinking patterns within six months of quitting, data suggests.
She added: ‘The number of alcohol-related deaths has doubled since the pandemic begun, meaning new treatments are needed more urgently than ever.’
FROM PARTY DRUG TO ALCOHOL ADDICTION TREATMENT: EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT KETAMINE
Ketamine is a powerful general anaesthetic that is used to stop humans and animals experiencing pain during operations.
It started being used as a party drug in the late 2000s, with people taking it before raves for a more intense experience.
What are the side effects?
Ketamine causes a loss of feeling and paralysis of the muscles.
It can also lead to people experiencing a distortion of reality, which many call entering the ‘k-hole’.
This is when people believe they have spoken to God or a higher power, which can lead to addiction as they crave that experience.
Ketamine may also cause people to feel incapable of moving, experience hallucinations or lead to panic attacks, confusion and memory loss.
Regular users can seriously damage their bladders, which may need to be surgically removed.
Other risks include a raised heart rate and blood pressure.
Paralysis of the muscles can leave people vulnerable to hurting themselves, while not feeling pain properly can cause them to underestimate any damage.
Many claim ketamine withdrawal is worse than any other drug, with some feeling so depressed they contemplate suicide.
If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the Samaritans here.
How is it taken and what is the law around it?
For medical use ketamine is liquid but the ‘street’ drug is normally a grainy, white powder, with one gram costing around £20.
As a class B drug in the UK, possession of ketamine can result in people facing up to five years in jail, while supplying it could mean up to 14 years in prison.
Both cases may result in people facing an unlimited fine.
Source: Talk to Frank
One patient even said the therapy and ketamine combination was a ‘life changing and mind-altering experience’.
The study was the first of its kind to examine whether ketamine combined with therapy could prevent people from quickly returning to heavy drinking after stopping.
Half of the volunteers received psychological therapy, while the remaining participants were given alcohol education classes.
Volunteers were given a dose of 0.8mg/kg through an intravenous infusion — equating to approximately 56 mg in total.
For comparison, partygoers who end up in a ‘K hole’ often take doses above 200mg.
Those given ketamine and therapy drank more than recommended guidelines on five days over the six-month period, on average.
After monitoring the volunteers for six months, the team found those who took the drug were sober for 10.1 per cent more days within the 180-day study than those who were not given the drug.
Results from the study also show those given ketamine and therapy had the lowest rates of relapse, with 61.9 per cent of people having drank alcohol within the six-month study.
The rate was higher among those who received therapy alone (66.7 per cent), those given ketamine and alcohol classes (68.2 per cent) and alcohol classes alone (78.3 per cent).
No serious adverse effects were reported after taking the drug.
But they said a bigger trial is now needed to confirm their findings.
And the team said they are ‘certainly not advocating taking ketamine outside of a clinical context’, as this comes with ‘obvious risks’.
The team believe ketamine — which is a class B drug in the UK — works by inducing a ‘sense of being outside of your body’.
That stimulated an ‘observer state’ among some patients ‘similar to that described in mindfulness’, according to the researchers.
This may help patients ‘take a step back and consider thoughts and emotions’, they said.
But the researchers did not provide data on the patients beyond the six-month window, so it is unclear whether the treatments worked in the long-term.
There are more than 600,000 alcoholics in England alone, according to charity Alcohol Change UK.
The NHS advises people not to drink more than 14 units per week on a regular basis. Those included in the study were drinking 125 units per week on average, nine-times the recommended maximum.
As well as helping alcoholics have a higher success rate at staying sober, other studies have shown ketamine can be used in the fight against depression.
A nasal spray reformulation of the drug, called esketamine, has already been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for people who have not benefited from other antidepressant medicines.
The Exeter team argued ketamine could support alcoholics trying to give up alcohol by ‘temporarily alleviating depressive symptoms during the high-risk relapse period’.