By Roland Sebestyén
A new clinical trial found that those with severe alcohol disorder abstained from heavy drinking for longer when being treated with low-dose ketamine in combination with regular psychological therapy.
While there are only so many known therapies that exist for alcoholism, for part of the Ketamine for reduction of Alcohol Relapse (KARE) trial, researchers concluded that controlled ketamine therapy may be effective at helping prevent alcoholics from relapsing.
In a paper published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, British-led researchers observed 96 participants with known previous alcohol disorder symptoms who were “abstinent at the time of the trial.”
It is reported that those who took ketamine in combination with psychological therapy stayed completely sober for 162 of 180 days in the six-month follow-up period. This meant an astonishing 87% abstinence rate.
This group was reportedly 2.5 times more likely to stay sober than those treated with a placebo.
Lead author Professor Celia Morgan, of the University of Exeter, said: “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.
“This is extremely encouraging, as we normally see three out of every four people returning to heavy drinking within six months of quitting alcohol, so this result represents a great improvement.”
Participants that were treated with ketamine reported lower levels of depression in the following three months and better liver function than those in the placebo control group.
The participants – people diagnosed with alcohol use disorder – were drinking every day. According to the results, this meant an average approximate consumption of 50 pints of strong beer on an average week.
Participants receiving ketamine and therapy consumed over the recommended guidelines on alcohol on just five days in total over the six-month study period. According to the researchers, this change cut their risk of death from alcohol-related cases from one in eight to one in 80.
Professor Morgan added: “The number of alcohol-related deaths has doubled since the pandemic began, meaning new treatments are needed more urgently than ever.”
Previously, there were some concerns about using ketamine in alcoholics due to liver problems, but this study has shown that ketamine is safe and well-tolerated in clinical conditions. In fact, we found liver function improved in the ketamine group due to them drinking much less alcohol.
“This was a phase II clinical trial, meaning it’s conducted in people primarily to test how the safety and feasibility of the treatment. We now have an early signal this treatment is effective. We now need a bigger trial to see if we can confirm these effects.”
Despite these promising results, the researchers stress that ketamine should only be administered in safe, clinical settings.
“We’re certainly not advocating taking ketamine outside of a clinical context,” Professor Morgan continued. “Street drugs come with obvious risks, and it’s the combination of a low dose of ketamine and the right psychological therapy that is key, as is the expertise and support of clinical staff.
“This combination showed benefits still seen six months later, in a group of people for whom many existing treatments just don’t work.”
More participants reported positive changes in their lifestyles; claiming less motivation to drink and labelling the trial a “life-changing and mind-altering experience.”
Research into the potential of ketamine for addiction a number of mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression, has been on the rise in recent years. A study was recently approved to assess how the psychedelic substance may also be beneficial to people with gambling addictions.
The Ketamine for reduction of Alcohol Relapse (KARE) trial was led by the University of Exeter and funded by the Medical Research Council. Biotech company AWAKN Life Sciences has licensed the therapy from the University of Exeter to use in their clinics and partnerships. Furthermore, the University of Exeter and Awakn have also signed an agreement with Devon Partnership NHS Trust to explore NHS readiness for ketamine-assisted psychotherapy.