OPEN Foundation

W. Lawn

Ketamine for the treatment of addiction: Evidence and potential mechanisms

Abstract

Ketamine is a dissociative anaesthetic drug which acts on the central nervous system chiefly through antagonism of the n-methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA) receptor. Recently, ketamine has attracted attention as a rapid-acting anti-depressant but other studies have also reported its efficacy in reducing problematic alcohol and drug use. This review explores the preclinical and clinical research into ketamine’s ability to treat addiction. Despite methodological limitations and the relative infancy of the field, results thus far are promising. Ketamine has been shown to effectively prolong abstinence from alcohol and heroin in detoxified alcoholics and heroin dependent individuals, respectively. Moreover, ketamine reduced craving for and self-administration of cocaine in non-treatment seeking cocaine users. However, further randomised controlled trials are urgently needed to confirm ketamine’s efficacy. Possible mechanisms by which ketamine may work within addiction include: enhancement of neuroplasticity and neurogenesis, disruption of relevant functional neural networks, treating depressive symptoms, blocking reconsolidation of drug-related memories, provoking mystical experiences and enhancing psychological therapy efficacy. Identifying the mechanisms by which ketamine exerts its therapeutic effects in addiction, from the many possible candidates, is crucial for advancing this treatment and may have broader implications understanding other psychedelic therapies. In conclusion, ketamine shows great promise as a treatment for various addictions, but well-controlled research is urgently needed.
Ezquerra-Romano, I. I., Lawn, W., Krupitsky, E., & Morgan, C. J. A. (2018). Ketamine for the treatment of addiction: Evidence and potential mechanisms. Neuropharmacology. 10.1016/j.neuropharm.2018.01.017
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Well-being, problematic alcohol consumption and acute subjective drug effects in past-year ayahuasca users: a large, international, self-selecting online survey

Abstract

Ayahuasca is a natural psychedelic brew, which contains dimethyltryptamine (DMT). Its potential as a psychiatric medicine has recently been demonstrated and its non-medical use around the world appears to be growing. We aimed to investigate well-being and problematic alcohol use in ayahuasca users, and ayahuasca’s subjective effects. An online, self-selecting, global survey examining patterns of drug use was conducted in 2015 and 2016 (n = 96,901). Questions were asked about: use of ayahuasca, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and magic mushrooms; demographics, current well-being and past-year problematic alcohol use of past-year ayahuasca users and comparison drug users; and subjective effects of ayahuasca and comparison drugs. Ayahuasca users (n = 527) reported greater well-being than both classic psychedelic users (n = 18,138) and non-psychedelic drug-using respondents (n = 78,236). Ayahuasca users reported less problematic drinking than classic psychedelic users, although both groups reported greater problematic drinking than the other respondents. Ayahuasca’s acute subjective effects usually lasted for six hours and were most strongly felt one hour after consumption. Within our online, self-selecting survey, ayahuasca users reported better well-being than comparison groups and less problematic drinking than classic psychedelic users. Future longitudinal studies of international samples and randomised controlled trials are needed to dissect the effects of ayahuasca on these outcomes.
Lawn, W., Hallak, J. E., Crippa, J. A., Santos, R., Porffy, L., Barratt, M. J., … & Morgan, C. J. (2017). Well-being, problematic alcohol consumption and acute subjective drug effects in past-year ayahuasca users: a large, international, self-selecting online survey. Scientific reports7(1), 15201. 10.1038/s41598-017-14700-6
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Psilocybin with psychological support improves emotional face recognition in treatment-resistant depression

Abstract

Rationale

Depressed patients robustly exhibit affective biases in emotional processing which are altered by SSRIs and predict clinical outcome.

Objectives

The objective of this study is to investigate whether psilocybin, recently shown to rapidly improve mood in treatment-resistant depression (TRD), alters patients’ emotional processing biases.

Methods

Seventeen patients with treatment-resistant depression completed a dynamic emotional face recognition task at baseline and 1 month later after two doses of psilocybin with psychological support. Sixteen controls completed the emotional recognition task over the same time frame but did not receive psilocybin.

Results

We found evidence for a group × time interaction on speed of emotion recognition (p = .035). At baseline, patients were slower at recognising facial emotions compared with controls (p < .001). After psilocybin, this difference was remediated (p = .208). Emotion recognition was faster at follow-up compared with baseline in patients (p = .004, d = .876) but not controls (p = .263, d = .302). In patients, this change was significantly correlated with a reduction in anhedonia over the same time period (r = .640, p = .010).

Conclusions

Psilocybin with psychological support appears to improve processing of emotional faces in treatment-resistant depression, and this correlates with reduced anhedonia. Placebo-controlled studies are warranted to follow up these preliminary findings.

Stroud, J. B., Freeman, T. P., Leech, R., Hindocha, C., Lawn, W., Nutt, D. J., … & Carhart-Harris, R. L. (2017). Psilocybin with psychological support improves emotional face recognition in treatment-resistant depression. Psychopharmacology, 1-8. 10.1007/s00213-017-4754-y
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A proof-of-concept investigation into ketamine as a pharmacological treatment for alcohol dependence: study protocol for a randomised controlled trial

Abstract

Background

Worldwide, alcohol abuse is a burgeoning problem. Abstinence is key to allow recovery of physical and mental health as well as quality of life, but treatment for alcohol dependence is associated with high relapse rates. Preliminary data have suggested that a combined repeated ketamine and psychological therapy programme may be effective in reducing relapse in severe alcohol use disorder. This non-commercial proof-of-concept trial is aimed at making a preliminary assessment of the effectiveness of this combined treatment in this patient group.

Methods/design

This is a phase II, randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel-group clinical trial taking place in two sites in the UK: the South West of England and London. Ninety-six recently detoxified alcoholics, with comorbid depressive symptoms, will be randomised to one of four treatment arms. Patients will receive either three sessions of ketamine (0.8 mg/kg administered intravenously (IV) over 40 minutes) or placebo (50 ml saline 0.9% IV over 40 minutes) plus either seven sessions of manualised psychological therapy or an alcohol education control. Patients will be assessed at 3 and 6 months on a range of psychological and biological variables. The primary endpoints are (1) relapse rates at 6 months and (2) percentage days abstinent at 6 months. Secondary endpoints include 3 and 6 month percentage days abstinence, tolerability (indicated by dropout), adverse events, depressive symptoms, craving and quality of life.

Discussion

This study will provide important information on a new combined psychological and pharmacological intervention aimed at reducing relapse rates in alcoholics. The findings would have broad application given the worldwide prevalence of alcoholism and its associated medical, psychological and social problems.

McAndrew, A., Lawn, W., Stevens, T., Porffy, L., Brandner, B., & Morgan, C. J. (2017). A proof-of-concept investigation into ketamine as a pharmacological treatment for alcohol dependence: study protocol for a randomised controlled trial. Trials18(1), 159. 10.1186/s13063-017-1895-6
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Tripping up addiction: the use of psychedelic drugs in the treatment of problematic drug and alcohol use

Abstract

Psychedelic drugs have been used as treatments in indigenous cultures for thousands of years. Yet, due to their legal status, there has been limited scientific research into the therapeutic potential of these compounds for psychiatric disorders. In the absence of other effective treatments however, researchers have begun again to systematically investigate such compounds and there is now evidence pointing to the use of psychedelic drugs in the treatment of addiction. In this review we focus on human evidence for the effectiveness of preparations used by indigenous cultures in the Amazon (ayahausca) and Africa (ibogaine) and worldwide (psilocybin), and more recently synthetised drugs such as the serotonergic hallucinogen LSD and the dissociative anaesthetic ketamine. Potential mechanisms explored are anti-depressant effects, changes in neuroplasticity and existential psychological effects of these drugs.

Morgan, C., McAndrew, A., Stevens, T., Nutt, D., & Lawn, W. (2017). Tripping up addiction: the use of psychedelic drugs in the treatment of problematic drug and alcohol use. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 13, 71-76. 10.1016/j.cobeha.2016.10.009
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Recreational 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine (MDMA) or ‘ecstasy’ and self-focused compassion: Preliminary steps in the development of a therapeutic psychopharmacology of contemplative practices

Abstract

3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine (MDMA) produces diverse pro-social effects. Cognitive training methods rooted in Eastern contemplative practices also produce these effects through the development of a compassionate mindset. Given this similarity, we propose that one potential mechanism of action of MDMA in psychotherapy is through enhancing effects on intrapersonal attitudes (i.e. pro-social attitudes towards the self). We provide a preliminary test of this idea. Recreational MDMA (ecstasy) users were tested on two occasions, having consumed or not consumed ecstasy. Self-critical and self-compassionate responses to self-threatening scenarios were assessed before (T1) and after (T2) ecstasy use (or non-use), and then after compassionate imagery (T3). Moderating roles of dispositional self-criticism and avoidant attachment were examined. Separately, compassionate imagery and ecstasy produced similar sociotropic effects, as well as increases in self-compassion and reductions in self-criticism. Higher attachment-related avoidance was associated with additive effects of compassionate imagery and ecstasy on self-compassion. Findings were in line with MDMA’s neuropharmacological profile, its phenomenological effects and its proposed adjunctive use in psychotherapy. However, although conditions were balanced, the experiment was non-blind and MDMA dose/purity was not determined. Controlled studies with pharmaceutically pure MDMA are still needed to test these effects rigorously.

Kamboj, S. K., Kilford, E. J., Minchin, S., Moss, A., Lawn, W., Das, R. K., … & Freeman, T. P. (2015). Recreational 3, 4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine (MDMA) or ‘ecstasy’and self-focused compassion: preliminary steps in the development of a therapeutic psychopharmacology of contemplative practices. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 0269881115587143.

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Recreational 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine (MDMA) or 'ecstasy' and self-focused compassion: Preliminary steps in the development of a therapeutic psychopharmacology of contemplative practices

Abstract

3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine (MDMA) produces diverse pro-social effects. Cognitive training methods rooted in Eastern contemplative practices also produce these effects through the development of a compassionate mindset. Given this similarity, we propose that one potential mechanism of action of MDMA in psychotherapy is through enhancing effects on intrapersonal attitudes (i.e. pro-social attitudes towards the self). We provide a preliminary test of this idea. Recreational MDMA (ecstasy) users were tested on two occasions, having consumed or not consumed ecstasy. Self-critical and self-compassionate responses to self-threatening scenarios were assessed before (T1) and after (T2) ecstasy use (or non-use), and then after compassionate imagery (T3). Moderating roles of dispositional self-criticism and avoidant attachment were examined. Separately, compassionate imagery and ecstasy produced similar sociotropic effects, as well as increases in self-compassion and reductions in self-criticism. Higher attachment-related avoidance was associated with additive effects of compassionate imagery and ecstasy on self-compassion. Findings were in line with MDMA’s neuropharmacological profile, its phenomenological effects and its proposed adjunctive use in psychotherapy. However, although conditions were balanced, the experiment was non-blind and MDMA dose/purity was not determined. Controlled studies with pharmaceutically pure MDMA are still needed to test these effects rigorously.

Kamboj, S. K., Kilford, E. J., Minchin, S., Moss, A., Lawn, W., Das, R. K., … & Freeman, T. P. (2015). Recreational 3, 4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine (MDMA) or ‘ecstasy’and self-focused compassion: preliminary steps in the development of a therapeutic psychopharmacology of contemplative practices. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 0269881115587143.

Link to full text

Recreational 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine (MDMA) or ‘ecstasy’ and self-focused compassion: Preliminary steps in the development of a therapeutic psychopharmacology of contemplative practices.

Abstract

3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine (MDMA) produces diverse pro-social effects. Cognitive training methods rooted in Eastern contemplative practices also produce these effects through the development of a compassionate mindset. Given this similarity, we propose that one potential mechanism of action of MDMA in psychotherapy is through enhancing effects on intrapersonal attitudes (i.e. pro-social attitudes towards the self). We provide a preliminary test of this idea. Recreational MDMA (ecstasy) users were tested on two occasions, having consumed or not consumed ecstasy. Self-critical and self-compassionate responses to self-threatening scenarios were assessed before (T1) and after (T2) ecstasy use (or non-use), and then after compassionate imagery (T3). Moderating roles of dispositional self-criticism and avoidant attachment were examined. Separately, compassionate imagery and ecstasy produced similar sociotropic effects, as well as increases in self-compassion and reductions in self-criticism. Higher attachment-related avoidance was associated with additive effects of compassionate imagery and ecstasy on self-compassion. Findings were in line with MDMA’s neuropharmacological profile, its phenomenological effects and its proposed adjunctive use in psychotherapy. However, although conditions were balanced, the experiment was non-blind and MDMA dose/purity was not determined. Controlled studies with pharmaceutically pure MDMA are still needed to test these effects rigorously.

Kamboj, S. K., Kilford, E. J., Minchin, S., Moss, A., Lawn, W., Das, R. K., … & Freeman, T. P. (2015). Recreational 3, 4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine (MDMA) or ‘ecstasy’and self-focused compassion: Preliminary steps in the development of a therapeutic psychopharmacology of contemplative practices. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 0269881115587143.
Link to full text