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Jon Grant

University psychiatrist Jon Grant found that a common alcoholism drug has an effect on the urge to gamble.

Drug curbs gambling urge

Used in combination with therapy, naltrexone--an alcoholism drug--offers hope for pathological gamblers

By Nick Hanson

June 20, 2008

It appears that a drug--naltrexone--commonly used to treat alcohol addiction has other applications. One of them is curbing pathological gambling. In a recent University of Minnesota study, naltrexone helped a group of addicts significantly drop their gambling intensity and frequency. The results were published in a recent issue of the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. "This is good news for people who have a gambling problem," says Jon Grant, a University of Minnesota associate professor of psychiatry and principal investigator of the study. "This is the first time people have a proven medication that can help them get their behavior under control." While the drug is not a cure for gambling, Grant says it offers hope to many who are suffering from addiction. He also says the drug would most likely work best in combination with individual therapy.

Forty percent of the 49 participants who took the drug and completed the study, quit gambling for at least one month.

"Medication can be helpful, but people with gambling addiction often have multiple other issues that should be addressed through therapy," he says. He estimates between 1 to 3 percent of the population has a gambling problem. Grant is an addiction expert who has published more than 150 studies on topics like gambling, shoplifting, drugs, and sex. His studies focus on therapies, treatments, and brain imaging to better understand addiction and eventually alleviate it. "We're trying to understand the mechanisms that underlie these compulsive behaviors and treat them," Grant says. "Ideally, we would like to prevent them." About the study Seventy-seven people participated in the double-blind (meaning neither researchers nor participants know who belongs to the control and the experimental groups), placebo controlled study. Their ages ranged from 18 to 75 and they reported gambling for 6 to 32 hours each week. Fifty-eight men and women took 50, 100, or 150 milligrams of naltrexone every day for 18 weeks. Forty percent of the 49 participants who took the drug and completed the study quit gambling for at least one month. Their urge to gamble also significantly dropped in intensity and frequency. The other 19 participants took a placebo. But, only 10.5 percent of those were able to abstain from gambling. Dosage did not have an impact on the results, naltrexone was generally well tolerated, and men and women reported similar results. Naltrexone is sold under the brand names Revia and Depade. An extended-release formulation is sold under the name Vivitrol.