Statistics from the North American Foundation for Gambling Addiction and Help estimate that more than 2.6% of Americans struggle with some form of gambling abuse, and many opponents of the expanding sports betting marketplace argue that few measures have been put in place to aid the more than 10 million people battling this addiction.
The overturn of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) the US federal government awarded individual states with the ability to legalize and regulate sports betting in their respective jurisdictions. In doing so, each state has also been given the responsibility to establish clear methods to both prevent, identify, and offer help to those labeled as problem gamblers.
Many sportsbook operators give customers the ability to pause their accounts and to establish self imposed limits, but outside of support groups and dial-in hotlines, few true solutions exist to aid those looking for help.
New research is currently being conducted by a prominent biotech company to explore ketamine as a potential remedy for compulsive behaviors and more specifically gambling addiction.
Awakn Life Sciences has brought on the expertise of Dr. David Nutt, psychiatrist and Edmund J. Safra Professor of Neuropsychopharmacology in the Division of Brain Science, Dept of Medicine, Imperial College London. In doing so, the Awakn team has announced their plans to conduct the first clinical examination of ketamine and gambling addictions.
As a psychopharmacologist, Dr. Nutt has made it his life’s work to study the effects of drugs on the brain. “Over the last 15 years I’ve started studying psychedelics,” opens Dr. Nutt, “largely because very few people were and I thought it was something someone had to do.”
While on this 15-year journey, Dr. Nutt found it particularly interesting that little had been done to advance the research conducted more than a half century ago focused on psychedelics and their impact on brain disorders.
“It turned out that studying psychedelics opened up a whole new set of possibilities for treating mental disorders that I hadn’t thought of before, partly because I didn’t know the literature. It’s only now that I’ve gone back to the 1950s and 60s and discovered there was quite a lot of interest then in treating addiction, particularly alcoholism with psychedelics, then.”
Much like gambling, psychedelics cary many unfair social stigmatism, with the act of sports betting just recently making the leap from a taboo, degenerative behavior to a socially acceptable one over the last three years.
Where one could easily argue that the pandemic expedited the spread of sports betting regulation and its public acceptance, the increased emphasis on mental health has also thrust the psychedelic therapeutics industry back into the spotlight. Unbeknownst to many, the two industries might be more connected than one might think.
“Our modern imaging work showed that psychedelics disrupt a circuit in the brain that seems to be overactive in conditions like depression. And it’s also overactive in conditions where, and probably any condition where people get over engaged in thinking about a single thought.”
“So in depression,” continues Dr. Nutt, “depressed people are thinking about mistakes they’ve made. They’re thinking about having low self esteem, etc. And of course, in addiction, people are thinking about the next chance they get to drink or to shoot up or to gamble.”
Those in Dr. Nutt’s field of study often use the term ‘internalizing disorders’ when labeling this kind of thought process. As he dove deeper, Dr. Nutt had the revelation that the processes of disrupting internal thinking and depression could potentially disrupt the internal thinking in addiction as well.
Dr. Nutt acknowledges that he was not the first to come to this conclusion, referencing the Bogenschutz study in New Mexico’s look into alcoholism, and the ongoing clinical trials at Johns Hopkins targeting psychedelics therapeutics for smoking cessation.
“So now we’ve got the neuroscience of psychedelics and some clinical data. Why not bring them together?”
The opportunity to make this connection came when Awakn Life Sciences extended Dr. Nutt an offer to join as the group’s Chief Research Officer, granting him access to the funding necessary to conduct this research.
Awakn has focused most of its research on the battle against addiction, and gambling addiction presented itself as a prime candidate for the study’s efforts. Similarly to the research being conducted at Johns Hopkins for smoking cessation, gambling addiction is viewed as more of a raw addiction that has less outside influences condemning or reinforcing the compulsive action.
“We’ve been studying gambling on the grounds that it’s an addiction that isn’t confounded by drug use,” added Dr. Nutt, suggesting that other chemical dependencies often come with a wide variety of variables that potentially disrupt scientific findings. These substances also produce an obvious biological reaction in the human brain.
Gambling addiction can be difficult to detect, as the problem bettor can often maintain a relatively normal lifestyle. Alcoholics and opiate addicts, for comparison, regularly see their substance dependency impact their personal and professional lives, creating outside stressors and factors that can skew a study’s results.
When asked why Awakn had chosen ketamine as the leading candidate, Dr. Nutt points to the most obvious of reasons; “It’s legal.”
Ketamine has long been used as an anesthetic, and the psychoactive chemical is often administered to relieve pain and even induce the loss of consciousness. Given its wide acceptance in the medical community, ketamine was an obvious choice for the study given that it can be both prescribed and put into practice right away.
“Ketamine is basically an easily accessible, inexpensive, sort of psychedelic,” adds Dr. Nutt. “But while it may not be as powerful as psychedelics as drugs like psilocybin or DMT, it’s psychedelic enough. It definitely disrupts brain function during the trip, and it seems to be just enough in terms of alcoholism to allow people to recover. So maybe what we can do with setting up this trial is to see if it produces the same disruption in people who are gambling compulsively.”
Ketamine is already widely used in the United States to treat depression, but Awakn is seeking to construct a manualized approach to incorporate the chemical into a three-dose psychotherapeutic regimen.
This revolutionary study hopes to provide substantiated evidence and data that supports an abstinence based psychotherapy process using ketamine to curb, and even eliminate these compulsive brain patterns.
“What we’re hoping is that we can develop and prove that a systematic form of administration and psychotherapy is effective, we’d be able to license that as an indicator as a mode of treatment without necessarily having to license the medicine.”