Drug May Help Gamblers Walk Away From the Table

Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Some compulsive gamblers may soon be popping a pill instead of rolling the dice.

Results from the largest study ever of medical treatments for pathological gambling show that a medication already known to disrupt addictions is effective at getting people away from the craps table and back to their lives.

The drug, nalmefene, is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration, but researchers said the results of the study, published today in the American Journal of Psychiatry, could be the first step toward approval.

The study was conducted at 15 outpatient centers across the United States. Gamblers who took the drug felt less craving compared with others who were given placebos, said Jon E. Grant, a psychiatrist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis who led the study. The study was funded by BioTie Therapies Corp. of Finland, which makes the drug.

The study showed that nalmefene is not yet a sure bet, however. Two-thirds of the patients dropped out of the study because of side effects, mainly nausea. A second study is being launched with lower doses.

And while the drug clearly helped reduce craving, it did not erase people's memories about their high-roller days, meaning that effective treatment would likely include psychological counseling as well, Grant said.

Pathological gambling is different from disorders such as depression in that depressed patients want to stop being depressed. Gamblers, like other addicts, may dislike the consequences of their behavior, but that doesn't mean they won't miss it.

"Their cravings will reduce and then their bills will come, and they say, 'I have $10,000 in debt from the casino,' and they think, 'If I can win big once I can pay off my bills,' " Grant said.

-- Shankar Vedantam

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