Ketamine to treat alcoholism, trial underway


A new trial is currently underway in the UK to treat alcoholism by combining ketamine and psychological therapy. It will be delivered to Seven NHS sites across UK, approximately 280, before determining whether to release it to the general public.

The Ketamine for Reduction of Alcohol Relapse (KARE) trial is a £2.4 million phase 3 led by the scientists of the University of Exeter. The research continues a study designed to test whether ketamine treatment is safe, the phase two study showed the treatment to be safe and tolerable for people with severe alcohol use disorder. It also found that participants who received ketamine combined with therapy remained completely abstinent, with 86% being abstinent at the six-month follow-up period.

Prof Celia Morgan of the University of Exeter, who is leading the new trial, said: “More than two million UK adults have serious alcohol problems, yet only one in five of those get treatment. Three out of four people who quit alcohol will be back drinking heavily after a year. Alcohol-related harm is estimated to cost the NHS around £3.5 billion each year, and wider UK society around £40 billion.”

“Alcohol problems affect not only the individual but families, friends and communities, and related deaths have increased still further since the pandemic. We urgently need new treatments. If this trial establishes that ketamine and therapy works, we hope we can begin to see it used in NHS settings.”

Ketamine is used medically as an anesthetic, being one of the safest, but is also used as a recreational drug, known as Special K, it has hallucinogenic and dissociative effects. Currently in the UK, Home Office classifies the drug as a Class B banned substance.

Phase three will begin mid 2023 and will involve 280 participants, split in two groups, half being given the dose used in the first clinical trial along with psychological therapy, while the others will receive a very low dose of ketamine and seven educational sessions about the harmful effects of alcohol. Professor Anne Lingford-Hughes, Consultant for NHS Foundation Trust, said: “this is the largest trial of its kind in the world and builds on our earlier, smaller positive trial.“

“We currently have few effective treatment options for people with alcoholism, and not all of these work for everyone. We desperately, therefore, need new treatments using different approaches such as this trial to help people regain control of their life and reduce the immense harms they experience from alcohol.”