Updated on February 6, 2024
6 min read

Ketamine for Addiction: Treatment Overview

Ketamine is a drug that is commonly used as an anesthetic. It is ideal for shorter procedures and can be used on its own or with other anesthetics. 

Over the last few decades, other potential uses for ketamine have emerged. Evidence has shown that ketamine could also be used to treat psychological disorders like depression and addiction.1 

However, research into these treatments is still relatively young. As such, ketamine is not part of the FDA-approved medications for addiction therapy.2  

Research on Ketamine Use in Addiction Treatment

Over the last few decades, some important evidence has emerged showing that ketamine could help people struggling with addiction. 

Early Use of Ketamine Treatment for Addiction 

The first scientific studies on ketamine for addiction were published in 1997 by Evgeny Krupitsky and Alexander Grinenko. They used Ketamine Psychedelic Therapy (KPT) on over 1,000 people suffering from alcohol use disorder (AUD) with no adverse effects.

Their study found that:

  • 66% of people on KTP for AUD abstained from alcohol for a year
  • 24% of people on standard treatment for AUD abstained from alcohol for a year
  • 17% of people on KTP for heroin addiction abstained from heroin use for 2 years
  • 2% of people in the placebo group for heroin addiction abstained from heroin use for 2 years

Research Work on Ketamine for Addiction Treatment

Recent studies have investigated using ketamine for treating other forms of substance abuse. They have found that it can help in treatments for cocaine addiction. Other reports claim it can also be effective for non-drug addictions and other mental illnesses.

This kind of research shows a lot of potential for ketamine to benefit people suffering from addiction. However, more rigorous clinical trials are needed to truly prove its effectiveness.3

Risks and Benefits of Using Ketamine in Addiction Treatment

Ketamine is a promising new therapy for people suffering from addiction, offering a variety of potential benefits. But it also comes with significant risks, especially when not used properly or under appropriate medical supervision with strict protocols.

Potential Benefits of Ketamine in Addiction Therapy

Studies have shown that people with alcohol or heroin addictions are less likely to relapse under ketamine therapy. 

Other research shows that ketamine can make people with cocaine addiction less responsive to drug-related stimuli, causing them to use and crave the drug less.

While scientists are still not sure why ketamine can benefit addiction, some theories propose that it can affect how the brain stores memories related to drug use or that it can alter neural pathways related to addiction.3

Risks and Side Effects Associated with Ketamine Therapy

The potential risks of ketamine therapy include:

  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Fatigue
  • Altered perception
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Anxiety
  • Headaches
  • Increased blood pressure or heart rate

There is also the potential for people to become dependent on ketamine through repeated ketamine therapy.7

Ketamine abuse can have dangerous effects on your body, including:5

  • Chronic cognitive impairments 
  • Difficulties with learning and memory 
  • Palpitations 
  • Urinary tract damage 
  • Liver damage
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What to Expect During a Ketamine Therapy Session

In a standard therapy session with your doctor, they will first discuss what will occur during the process. They will emphasize that while under the effects of ketamine, you will learn to view drug use in a more negative light and sobriety in a more positive light. 

Next, you will receive a dose of ketamine, usually done through an injection. Your doctor will guide you through this stage, with instructions on what to visualize or how to direct your thoughts. 

Finally, you will have another psychotherapy session. This time, it will be in a group, with other people who have undergone ketamine treatment. This will help you process the session and internalize important insights.3

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Who Is an Ideal Candidate for Ketamine Therapy?

There is still more research needed to determine the factors that could make a person more or less likely to benefit from ketamine therapy. Research institutions and governing bodies like the Drug Enforcement Administration must administer the necessary trials before standardizing and legitimizing ketamine therapy.

Be sure to avoid ketamine therapy if you:1

  • Have a known hypersensitivity to it
  • Are pregnant or breastfeeding
  • Are intoxicated
  • Have schizophrenia

What Is Ketamine?

Ketamine was created in 1962 as part of an effort to find an effective anesthetic. Later, it was discovered that low-dose ketamine has psychedelic properties. 

Known as a dissociative anesthetic, it can bring someone into a disconnected state at high enough doses. Users can feel separate from their physical bodies, and it can also cause hallucinations and changes in thoughts or emotions.4

Since then, it has become not only an important anesthetic but also a popular recreational drug. The drug is a controlled substance in many countries to prevent ketamine abuse.3 In more recent studies, current research shows that ketamine has an emerging role in addiction therapy.6

How Is Ketamine Administered in Medical Settings?

If you are given ketamine in the hospital, it will usually be administered through an IV, but it can also be given through an injection. The drug works quickly, and the effects of an intravenous ketamine infusion can be felt within seconds.1,3

Ketamine is also illicitly used outside medical settings as a street drug. Even though it is safe, it can be addictive. Abusing it can cause mental and cognitive impairment and damage the heart and liver.

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How Does Ketamine Affect the Brain?

Ketamine blocks N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors in the central nervous system, which play an important role in the sensation of pain. This effect allows it to act as a potent painkiller. 

It also affects various areas of the brain, giving it hallucinogenic or dissociative properties. These effects make it desirable to some people for recreational mind-altering episodes. 

What Are the Neurological Effects of Ketamine?

Neurotransmitters are chemicals that allow neurons in the brain to communicate. Ketamine can affect how your brain processes different neurotransmitters.

By blocking NMDA receptors, ketamine prevents the neurotransmitter glutamate from relaying pain signals. It can also affect serotonin (which influences mood and happiness) and dopamine (which affects mood and the sensations of pleasure or reward). 

When these neurotransmitters are released, they are absorbed back into the neurons to limit how long they affect you. Ketamine can interfere with this process, allowing these neurotransmitters to have a greater effect.6

How Does Ketamine Influence Memory and Experience?

Ketamine affects many parts of the brain, but it has been known to negatively affect learning and memory. It can interfere with how the brain creates memories, resulting in cognitive difficulties in people who use ketamine over a long period of time.5,6

The psychedelic and dissociative effects of ketamine can affect the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. These parts of the brain are necessary for several important and complex functions.

These functions include:

  • Higher reasoning
  • Decision-making
  • Planning
  • Personality
  • Language
  • Memory

Summary

There is a growing body of evidence telling us that ketamine could be a powerful tool for people struggling with addiction. It can help prevent relapses in people who have detoxified, and it can help people with addiction reduce their cravings.

However, there is still a great deal of research that needs to be conducted before ketamine therapy becomes a generally accepted treatment for addiction. If you are struggling with addiction and considering ketamine therapy, be sure to consult a medical professional beforehand.  

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Updated on February 6, 2024

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