Drug Shows Promise in Treating Gambling Addiction

A study in the February issue of The American Journal of Psychiatry indicates that a new drug, Nalmefene, may help reduce urges in pathological gamblers. The drug is not yet approved for the treatment of gambling addiction.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

A new drug shows promise in reducing the cravings and behaviors in people addicted to gambling.

Michelle Trudeau reports on research in this month's issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry.

MICHELLE TRUDEAU reporting:

Greg is 47-years-old now. He's been a gambler a long time. A lot of poker in high school. Later, betting on horse races.

GREG (Compulsive gambler): And then, when the casinos arrived in St. Louis in the 1990s, that's when things really went out of control for me.

TRUDEAU: He says he became consumed by gambling. It was all he did. He even quit his job in the corporate world to become a dealer at a local casino to be closer to the action. He lost touch with his family, he let good friendships evaporate, he racked up $30,000 in debt.

GREG: And I knew what I was doing, but I was really helpless to stop it. I was filled with self-loathing during those years.

TRUDEAU: He tried abstaining several times, going to Gamblers Anonymous, but the withdrawal symptoms, he says, were psychologically intolerable. And after a few weeks, he'd head right back to the casinos.

GREG: And that was the pattern that continued until I got involved in this study with Dr. Grant.

TRUDEAU: Jon Grant, research psychiatrist at the University of Minnesota. Grant initiated this study because there's currently no safe and effective treatment to help the estimated three million addicted gamblers.

Dr. JON GRANT (Research psychiatrist, University of Minnesota): This was a study of over 200 people, roughly equal percentages men and women, who were seen at 15 outpatient treatment centers throughout the United States.

TRUDEAU: The study tested a medication called Nalmefene, a drug that blocks the opiate receptors in the reward center of the brain. Gambling and other addictive behaviors are known to trigger the brain's opiate reward system.

Dr. GRANT: So, the reason that we used this medication was to see whether it would effect that sense of craving that people would have, as well as the thrill and the rush that people would get from gambling. Assuming that if you could decrease the craving and the thrill, that by then extension, you would change behavior.

TRUDEAU: The study, which was funded by the company that makes the drug, lasted four months. Greg was one of the participants.

GREG: The study wrapped up, for me, just about a week ago. And, I have not gambled since October 22nd, which would be coming up on 100 days. And, I am not climbing the walls, I am not craving it. It's absolutely amazing to me.

TRUDEAU: The researchers report that about 60% of the patients on the medication had a significant decline on their gambling behavior. More research is being done to determine if the effects of the drug last over time.

Psychologist Peter Nathan, from the University of Iowa, says he's encouraged by the preliminary findings.

Dr. PETER NATHAN (Distinguished Professor of Psychology, University of Iowa): There is hope for those who have a problem with gambling, and I couldn't have said that ten years ago. So, I think real progress has been made, and I think this study represents an important step along that way.

TRUDEAU: The drug used in this study, Nalmefene, is not yet approved for the treatment of gambling addiction. A similar medication called Naltrexone was previously shown to be effective in treating gambling addiction, but it caused liver problems. The new drug, Nalmefene, had no liver toxicity reported in this study.

For NPR News, I'm Michelle Trudeau.

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