Ketamine has been known to treat pain and depression, but scientists are currently researching whether this Class B drug could be used to treat alcoholism as well.
Researchers at Exeter University are looking to recruit 96 volunteers to take part in a study where they will receive a low-dose of ketamine by injection once a week for three weeks.
The participants will have to be “recently abstinent” – not drinking for at least two weeks – and will be required to take part in seven 90 minute sessions of psychological therapy as part of the treatment.
Their alcohol intake will be monitored with an ankle device for six months which will be measuring the participants’ sweat levels.
A control group will be given the same amount of therapy but will be injected with a placebo consisting of saline solution instead of ketamine so that the researchers can compare the results.
The project, called KARE (Ketamine for Reduction of Alcoholic Relapse), is being funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC) and Innovate UK.
Ketamine is a medical drug and has been used an anaesthetic and to relieve pain – and studies have shown the drug can treat depression.
But it is also used as a recreational drug and is known as Special K amongst clubbers and party-goers.
A pilot study found that relapse rates for alcoholics were reduced from 76 to 34 per cent after they received three doses of the drug in conjunction with psychological therapy.
Researchers believe the ketamine’s antidepressant properties could play a role in the reduction of relapse rates.
Lead researcher Professor Celia Morgan, of the University of Exeter, said: “There’s strong preliminary evidence to suggest that low levels of ketamine could help recovering alcoholics stay off drink.
“Previous studies in mice suggest ketamine could produce changes in our brains that make it easier to make new connections and learn new things in the short-term.
“A pilot study found that three doses of ketamine in conjunction with psychological therapy nearly halved relapse rates – they reduced from 76 per cent to 34 per cent over a year.
“Ketamine’s antidepressant properties may also contribute towards this reduction. This larger scale study will give us much stronger evidence on how effective this is and potentially how and why it works.”
Dr Kathryn Adcock, head of neurosciences and mental health at the MRC, added: “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.
“We are constantly looking for new ways to help change this pattern and we look forward to the results of this innovative trial.”