University studies drug’s use for compulsive sexual behavior, pyromania and kleptomania

University’s studies on medicating psychological diseases have some doubting the results.

by Clarise Tushie-Lessard

Ongoing studies are investigating if a pill widely used to treat alcoholism will be effective against other compulsive behaviors, but not without disagreements over treating psychological conditions with a drug.

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For more information on ongoing naltrexone studies at the University, go to and search for “UMN + naltrexone.”

University researchers are recruiting test subjects for ongoing studies which test whether the drug naltrexone can help treat pyromania and compulsive sexual behavior , while a study on kleptomania is nearly finished. The drug was also shown to reduce the urge to gamble, according to a University study released earlier this month. But the studies, some say, are the results of an overmedicated nation.

Dr. Gavin Bart , a physician and addiction medicine specialist at Hennepin County Medical Center said naltrexone, which was certified by the Food and Drug Administration in 1984 and is now widely used to treat alcoholism, is helpful for alcoholics.

“I prescribe it frequently for the treatment of alcohol dependence,” he said. “It’s very effective.”

Gary Christenson , a psychiatrist at Boynton Health Service, said he first counsels alcoholics, but prescribes naltrexone if the addiction is serious enough.

“I do offer it as an option for those people who are really struggling to cut down on their alcohol use,” he said, but added the drug was only a tool to be used in conjunction with therapy. “It’s effective, and the studies show that it’s effective.”

Despite naltrexone’s apparent success, some question its use.

During the University’s gambling study, about 27 percent of participants dropped out, said Associate Psychiatry Professor Jon E. Grant.

“That’s a pretty significant number,” said Gary Schwitzer, the graduate studies director for health journalism. Schwitzer released a May 27 study on the American media’s coverage of medical procedures and tests . “They must’ve thought the side effects of the drug were worse than what it was supposed to treat, so that can’t easily be overlooked.”

But Grant , who led research on the gambling study and is leading ongoing studies, said the dropout rate was not surprising.

“It’s a pretty standard dropout rate for drug studies,” he said.

Dr. Fred Baughman , a retired neurologist who testified at the Minnesota legislature on Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in 2001, doubts the true effectiveness of medication on psychological conditions like pathological gambling.

“For there to be a disease, there’s got to be a physical abnormality that doctors can find,” he said. “If there aren’t any physical abnormalities, there’s no disease.”

Baughman said conditions such as pyromania and kleptomania are not treatable with medication.

“These are psychological problems in physically normal individuals,” he said. “So there is nothing to treat.”

Baughman said the University’s studies are the result of the country’s overdependence on drugs.

“(The United States) is vastly overmedicated,” Baughman said. “This is very much the state of mind that the (pharmaceutical) industry wants to create, and they’ve done a fabulous job.”

But Grant said the research is important because it seems to help pathological gamblers and has potential for helping others.

“We now understand that people can get addicted to behaviors much like they can drugs or alcohol,” Grant said. “The hypothesis is that certain behaviors – gambling, sex, stealing, etc. – might do the same thing biologically in the brain that drugs of abuse do, and therefore you can treat it with the same medications as drugs of abuse.”