MELISSA BLOCK, host:
A pill for shoplifting? The idea might seem torn from the pages of a science fiction novel, but a new study in the journal Biological Science says it might not be so far off.
NPR's Alix Spiegel has this story about an experimental treatment for kleptomania. One note: We've agreed not to use the last name of one person in this story because she admits to criminal behavior.
ALIX SPIEGEL: Darlene(ph) has stolen hundreds of things in her 59 years: a $16 Sunbeam clothing iron, three bras from the Lane Bryant store near her house, televisions, and frozen dinners and her neighbor's pet rabbit. So it takes a minute for her to remember, when asked the exact nature of the last item she jacked.
DARLENE: I would say the $10 paperback book from The Giant.
SPIEGEL: Darlene, you see, is a former librarian, so books have always had a particular attraction. She says she's stolen more books than any other thing.
DARLENE: Books were a really big thing with me, especially self-help books or recovery books.
SPIEGEL: So you would steal self-help and recovery books?
DARLENE: Yeah. It doesn't make a lot of sense.
SIEGEL: It does make sense. In those books, Darlene would search out clues to her dysfunction, strategies for overcoming what felt like an uncontrollable need to steal. But for years, it didn't work, no matter what she tried, and she tried a lot. She'd wear tight clothing when she went into stores so there'd be no place to hide things. She'd shop with friend. And after a stint in jail for stealing, she found another strategy.
DARLENE: I wore my inmate ID under my shirt. And whenever I would be tempted, I would look at that, but some part of me didn't really know how to stop.
SPIEGEL: Which brings us to the subject of Professor Jon E. Grant and the pill for kleptomania. Grant is a professor of psychiatry at the University of Minnesota who for years has run a clinic for people with impulse control disorders, things like…
Dr. JON E. GRANT (Psychiatrist, University of Minnesota): Gambling, sex, fire-setting, stealing.
SPIEGEL: Now, traditionally, psychiatrists have classified these kinds of behavioral problems under a different category than substance abuse disorders like alcoholism or drug addiction, problems which involve actual chemical substances which are sometimes hard to shake. But after years of work, Grant began to wonder about that separation. Clients in both groups, he noticed, always said the same thing.
Dr. GRANT: People will say, I know I shouldn't drink. I have problems when I drink, but I can't control my drinking. People were describing behaviors in this very same way. I know I shouldn't gamble. It causes me problems, but I gamble. I know I shouldn't shoplift, but I like doing it, and it causes me problems. I can't stop it.
SPIEGEL: So Grant decided to try an experiment. In the mid-'90s, the FDA had approved a drug called Naltrexone for the treatment of alcohol dependence. Dozens of studies have shown that it works pretty well, around 20 to 30 percent of the time. So Grant decided to test the pill on people with kleptomania.
Dr. GRANT: Based on the fact that this clinically presents like an addiction, our thought was, why shouldn't we use a medication that's approved by the FDA for addiction to see if it can help people with shoplifting?
SPIEGEL: The results of this small study were recently published in the journal Biological Psychiatry. It turns out that the people with kleptomania did respond to the pill. Before the pill, Grant notes…
Dr. GRANT: On average, people were spending about an hour a week stealing. Almost two-thirds of them had quit any stealing behavior at the end of the study.
SPIEGEL: Except for the people on placebos. Their behavior stayed pretty much the same. So why did the pill work?
Grant says that kleptomania, like drug abuse, is an addiction which provides the practitioner with an intense high or rush. And the more you do it, the more you develop a dependence on that kind of sensation.
But Naltrexone is an opioid antagonist, which is science talk for buzz kill. Basically, it's the no-fun pill.
Dr. GRANT: This will block that thrill, and therefore, they will desire to do it less.
SPIEGEL: Darlene is now on the pill and says it's helping her immensely. Still, for good measure, every time she goes to the store, she says she carries her clinging cross, a cross that she clings to, in the palm of her right hand.
DARLENE: It's kind of made out of wood. It has a dove on it. And I put it in my right hand, try to think of the death of Christ, and I try to give up my feelings of stealing to Jesus.
SPIEGEL: Darlene says that most of the time, these twin supports, Naltrexone and Jesus, keep her on the straight and narrow.
Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington.