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Excessive drinking costs $249 billion. Can one dose of ketamine curb alcoholism?

An experimental study involving 90 heavy drinkers found promising results.

Excessive drinking costs $249 billion. Can one dose of ketamine curb alcoholism?

Danish fans cheer with beer during the UEFA EURO 2020 Qualifier match between Denmark and Gibraltar at Telia Parken on November 15, 2019 in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Photo credit: Lars Ronbog / FrontZoneSport via Getty Images
  • A single dose of ketamine has been shown reduce cravings for alcohol in heavy drinkers.
  • Ninety drinkers took part in the experimental study; the ketamine groups fared best.
  • This research on addiction follows in the wake of a ketamine derivative being used for treatment-resistant depression.

Earlier this year, a derivative of ketamine became the first hallucinogenic substance to be approved for treatment of depression. Under the name esketamine, the nasal spray proved efficacious in helping alleviate treatment-resistant depression. While not a seretonergic psychedelic, such as LSD or psilocybin, ketamine has been associated with these substances for producing similar hallucinations.

The approval of esketamine points to an industry recognizing that the current pharmacological model is failing. Though SSRIs appear helpful in the short-term, chronic problems become evident over years and decades in many users. The correlation (and possible causation) of the increasing numbers of psychiatric drugs being prescribed and increasing mental health issues is too stark to avoid. In many ways, ketamine, first introduced as an anesthetic in 1964, is a gateway drug, opening the public's mind to the potential of MDMA and psilocybin being used in clinical treatment in the coming years.

Unlike more known substances (such as MDMA and cannabis), ketamine has largely escaped both scrutiny and being labelled a panacea. With marijuana's widespread legalization and acceptance, the phytocannabinoid, CBD, is being falsely marketed as a cure-all; even pet CBD is projected to become a $1.16 billion industry despite scant evidence of efficacy. Perhaps because of ketamine's relatively low profile, it has been clinically tested for the past two decades with little fanfare. And many results are returning positively.

Take one new study, published in the journal Nature Communications on November 26, for example. The researchers found that heavy alcohol drinkers reduce their intake after a single ketamine injection. Unlike a pill that you have to consume daily to affect your neurochemistry, ketamine appears to rewire the process of memory consolidation after one dose. Specifically, it overwrites maladaptive reward memories (MRMs), which the researchers write are "learned associations that encode the contingencies between drug-predictive environmental stimuli (e.g. the smell and taste of beer) and drug reward."

What Ketamine Actually Does To Your Brain

The study's lead author, Dr. Ravi Das of the UCL Clinical Psychopharmacology Unit, explains that drug and alcohol addiction is caused by this sort of association.

"Essentially, the drug hijacks the brain's in-built reward-learning system, so that you end up associating environmental 'triggers' with the drug. These produce an exaggerated desire to take the drug. Unfortunately, once these reward memories are established, it's very difficult to re-learn more healthy associations, but it's vital in order to prevent relapse."

A total of 90 heavy drinkers took part in the study. Their average weekly intake was 30 pints of beer. After completing a task on the first day, they were given a beer as a reward; the following day, the beer was taken away. This is important because addicts associate the reward with a task.

Whether or not you're addicted to a substance, anticipation affects us all. While driving to a restaurant to order your favorite meal, you begin producing saliva. If you show up and the dish is unavailable, disappointment is inevitable — your expectations were not met. How you process this letdown is indicative of potential addiction. Do you simply order another dish and move on with your life or does the disappointment continue to cloud your consciousness?

After having their beer taken away, one group was given an intravenous infusion of ketamine; the other, a placebo. A third group was given ketamine but did not partake in the drinking memory retrieval task.

A person holding up a bottle of Ketamine, Horse tranquilliser, UK 2006.

Photo credit: PYMCA/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

After 10 days all three groups returned to the laboratory. The group that received ketamine and had their beers taken away experienced significant reductions in their urge to drink; they began drinking less alcohol. Nine months later, all three groups had reduced their drinking to some degree, but the above group reduced it the most. Only the groups that received ketamine injections showed a statistically significant reduction in alcohol consumption. This is an important issue in America, where excessive drinking costs the economy an estimated $249 billion and kills 88,000 people every year.

The researchers conclude,

"The striking apparent dampening of reward structures surrounding alcohol and substantial, lasting reductions in drinking levels highlight that reconsolidation interference may form a key part utility of the next generation of more effective long-term treatments for addictive disorders."

Das calls the study experimental and not clinical; more concrete evidence will be needed for ketamine to be used therapeutically. However, he also notes that current models for alcoholism are not working. We've long known that addiction relies on psychological association. Your environment also plays an essential role in addiction. You either need to change your environment or change your relationship to your surroundings. It appears that ketamine might help with the latter challenge.


Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His next book is Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy.

Radical innovation: Unlocking the future of human invention

Ready to see the future? Nanotronics CEO Matthew Putman talks innovation and the solutions that are right under our noses.

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Your body’s full of stuff you no longer need. Here's a list.

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Quantum particles timed as they tunnel through a solid

A clever new study definitively measures how long it takes for quantum particles to pass through a barrier.

Image source: carlos castilla/Shutterstock
  • Quantum particles can tunnel through seemingly impassable barriers, popping up on the other side.
  • Quantum tunneling is not a new discovery, but there's a lot that's unknown about it.
  • By super-cooling rubidium particles, researchers use their spinning as a magnetic timer.

When it comes to weird behavior, there's nothing quite like the quantum world. On top of that world-class head scratcher entanglement, there's also quantum tunneling — the mysterious process in which particles somehow find their way through what should be impenetrable barriers.

Exactly why or even how quantum tunneling happens is unknown: Do particles just pop over to the other side instantaneously in the same way entangled particles interact? Or do they progressively tunnel through? Previous research has been conflicting.

That quantum tunneling occurs has not been a matter of debate since it was discovered in the 1920s. When IBM famously wrote their name on a nickel substrate using 35 xenon atoms, they used a scanning tunneling microscope to see what they were doing. And tunnel diodes are fast-switching semiconductors that derive their negative resistance from quantum tunneling.

Nonetheless, "Quantum tunneling is one of the most puzzling of quantum phenomena," says Aephraim Steinberg of the Quantum Information Science Program at Canadian Institute for Advanced Research in Toronto to Live Science. Speaking with Scientific American he explains, "It's as though the particle dug a tunnel under the hill and appeared on the other."

Steinberg is a co-author of a study just published in the journal Nature that presents a series of clever experiments that allowed researchers to measure the amount of time it takes tunneling particles to find their way through a barrier. "And it is fantastic that we're now able to actually study it in this way."

Frozen rubidium atoms

Image source: Viktoriia Debopre/Shutterstock/Big Think

One of the difficulties in ascertaining the time it takes for tunneling to occur is knowing precisely when it's begun and when it's finished. The authors of the new study solved this by devising a system based on particles' precession.

Subatomic particles all have magnetic qualities, and they spin, or "precess," like a top when they encounter an external magnetic field. With this in mind, the authors of the study decided to construct a barrier with a magnetic field, causing any particles passing through it to precess as they did so. They wouldn't precess before entering the field or after, so by observing and timing the duration of the particles' precession, the researchers could definitively identify the length of time it took them to tunnel through the barrier.

To construct their barrier, the scientists cooled about 8,000 rubidium atoms to a billionth of a degree above absolute zero. In this state, they form a Bose-Einstein condensate, AKA the fifth-known form of matter. When in this state, atoms slow down and can be clumped together rather than flying around independently at high speeds. (We've written before about a Bose-Einstein experiment in space.)

Using a laser, the researchers pusehd about 2,000 rubidium atoms together in a barrier about 1.3 micrometers thick, endowing it with a pseudo-magnetic field. Compared to a single rubidium atom, this is a very thick wall, comparable to a half a mile deep if you yourself were a foot thick.

With the wall prepared, a second laser nudged individual rubidium atoms toward it. Most of the atoms simply bounced off the barrier, but about 3% of them went right through as hoped. Precise measurement of their precession produced the result: It took them 0.61 milliseconds to get through.

Reactions to the study

Scientists not involved in the research find its results compelling.

"This is a beautiful experiment," according to Igor Litvinyuk of Griffith University in Australia. "Just to do it is a heroic effort." Drew Alton of Augustana University, in South Dakota tells Live Science, "The experiment is a breathtaking technical achievement."

What makes the researchers' results so exceptional is their unambiguity. Says Chad Orzel at Union College in New York, "Their experiment is ingeniously constructed to make it difficult to interpret as anything other than what they say." He calls the research, "one of the best examples you'll see of a thought experiment made real." Litvinyuk agrees: "I see no holes in this."

As for the researchers themselves, enhancements to their experimental apparatus are underway to help them learn more. "We're working on a new measurement where we make the barrier thicker," Steinberg said. In addition, there's also the interesting question of whether or not that 0.61-millisecond trip occurs at a steady rate: "It will be very interesting to see if the atoms' speed is constant or not."

Self-driving cars to race for $1.5 million at Indianapolis Motor Speedway ​

So far, 30 student teams have entered the Indy Autonomous Challenge, scheduled for October 2021.

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  • The Indy Autonomous Challenge will task student teams with developing self-driving software for race cars.
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