U researchers say drug fights gambling addiction

The drug, they say, also is effective against alcoholism, kleptomania and other addictions.

Megan Kadrmas

Two University psychologists have discovered a drug that they say effectively and safely treats gambling addiction. The American Journal of Psychiatry published the findings of Jon Grant and S.W. Kim in its February edition.

The two-year study consisted of more than 200 patients at 15 centers around the nation. Locally, more than 45 patients participated through University Medical Center, Fairview.

Nalmefene, the drug studied during the clinical trial, effectively blocked the mental cravings experienced by gambling addicts, the researchers said. Grant estimated that, if everything is successful with his latest study of the drug, it could be available in two years.

This drug also is thought to be effective in treating alcoholism, shopping addiction, kleptomania and some sexual addictions. These disorders originate in the area of the brain that measures pleasure and reward. Chemical imbalances in this area contribute to addictive behaviors.

The study found that nalmefene does not harm the liver, according to Kim, which is significant because similar drugs used to treat gambling addictions can cause damage. These other drugs, such as naltrexone, affect the levels of enzymes present in the liver.

Kim said doctors might be more willing to prescribe nalmefene because it is safer.

The Minnesota Center for Addiction Studies estimated 7 percent of adults are problem gamblers.

“Gambling addiction is a medical problem, not an issue of willpower or weak morals,” Grant said. The impact of their study was important because gambling is a disease that could be treated, he said.

David Koeplin, director of the compulsive gambling treatment program at Fairview, said gambling problems generally go unnoticed in college students because it takes longer for a problematic gambler to experience trouble or fall into serious debt.

“It is my impression from what I read that gambling addictions are becoming more prevalent across the nation,” said Jennifer Engler, a staff psychologist for the University’s Counseling and Consulting Services.

According to Engler, environment and accessibility have adverse effects on any addiction. Minnesota has increased accessibility to gambling over past decades, she said.

Another study of the drug’s effects on gambling addiction and appropriate dosage levels is under way, led by Grant.

Nalmefene is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration and is not on the market.

Although the study results are promising, Koeplin said, drugs alone can’t treat addiction.

“Drugs won’t replace the importance of treatment programs for recovering addicts. The two need to go hand in hand. You can’t effectively treat the whole addiction simply through a drug,” he said.