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University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Drug offers new hope for gambling addiction

September 8, 2008

Jon Grant, a University of Minnesota associate professor of psychiatry and principal investigator of the study.


By Nick Hanson and Rick Moore

As an addiction, gambling draws far less attention than its occasionally more boisterous cousins—drug and alcohol addictions. But that doesn't mean its effects are any less insidious and devastating.

Pathological gamblers can become obsessed with their next opportunity to wager. It's not uncommon to hear stories of gamblers who, in a short amount of time, rack up debts in the thousands—even tens of thousands—of dollars. Their addiction can lead to the loss of a job, a home, friends, or a marriage.

But a new treatment option holds significant promise. In a recent University of Minnesota study, the drug naltrexone—commonly used to treat alcohol addiction—helped a group of addicts significantly drop their gambling intensity and frequency.

"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.

"Medication can be helpful, but people with gambling addiction often have multiple other issues that should be addressed through therapy," he says.

About the study

Seventy-seven people participated in the double-blind (meaning neither researchers nor participants know who belongs to the experimental and control 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.

A ray of hope

Pathological gambling is a psychiatric condition in which gambling and the need to gamble cripples people's ability to function well. In addition to the financial pitfalls, it can lead to lying, stealing, and increasing the time spent gambling.

Grant estimates that upwards of 3 percent of the population—roughly 9 million people—may suffer from pathological gambling. (That's about 10 times the population of the burgeoning Las Vegas metro area.) And with the proliferation of casinos and easier access to gambling online, it's far more convenient than decades ago to succumb to the temptation.

While naltrexone may not be a sure bet for gamblers, the option appears to move the odds a bit more in their favor.

Naltrexone is sold under the brand names Revia and Depade. An extended-release formulation is sold under the name Vivitrol.

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."