More addiction cures: Early promise for Risperidone in crystal meth addiction

A recent open label study found some support for the effectiveness of a Risperidone injection, given once every 2 weeks, in reducing crystal meth (speed) use.

The 22 patients who participated reduced their weekly crystal meth use from an average of 4 times per week to only 1 time per week. The difference between those who were able to stay completely clean and the others seemed to have to do with the levels of Risperidone in the blood.

The nice thing about using an injection as addiction treatment is that it removes the possibility of patients choosing not to take their medication on any given day. Such non-adherence to treatment is very often found to be the reason for relapse.

This study will need to be followed up by placebo-controlled double-blind studies, but given Risperidone’s action as a Dopamine antagonist, I suspect that those trials will also show a strong treatment effect. The promise of medicines as addiction treatment cures always seems great, but I believe that at best, they can be an additional tool to be used in conjunction with other therapies.

The question will be whether the side-effects common with antipsychotic medication will be well-tolerated by enough people to make the drug useful for addiction treatment.

Treating alcohol withdrawal with benzodiazepines – Safe if mindful

Alcohol withdrawal can lead to some pretty horrible side effects

Contributing co-author: Andrew Chen

Alcohol withdrawal can be extremely unpleasant (see here for an overview). Symptoms vary from person to person, but most people will experience some negative symptoms of alcohol withdrawal if they try to stop drinking after long term use.

Mild to moderate symptoms include headache, nausea, vomiting, insomnia, rapid heart rate, abnormal movements, anxiety, depression, and fatigue. Severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include hallucinations, fever, and convulsions (known as DT’s or delirium tremens). Most people undergoing alcohol detox do not require hospitalization, but in severe cases, hospitalization may be necessary (1). Since their introduction in the 1960s, benzodiazepines have been the drug of choice for treating severe cases of alcohol withdrawal.

Benzodiazepines, or benzos for short, are a class of psychoactive drugs that work to slow down the central nervous system by activating GABA receptors. This provides a variety of useful tranquilizing effects. Aside from relieving symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, benzodiazepines are also commonly prescribed to treat insomnia, muscle spasms, involuntary movement disorders, anxiety disorders, and convulsive disorders.

The most common regimen for treating alcohol withdrawal includes 3 days of long-acting benzodiazepines on a fixed schedule with additional medication available “as needed.” (2)

The two most commonly prescribed benzos are chlordiazepoxide and diazepam. Chlordiazepoxide (Librium) is preferred for its superior anticonvulsant capabilities while diazepam (Valium) is preferred for its safety against overdose with alcohol. Short-acting benzos like oxazepam and lorazepam are less frequently used for treating alcohol withdrawal (1).

Compared to other drugs, benzos are the safest and most effective method for treating difficult alcohol withdrawal. However, benzodiazepines do come with their own potential for dependence and abuse. Ironically, symptoms of benzodiazepine withdrawal are quite similar to those of alcohol withdrawal. Tapering off dosage is the best way to prevent serious withdrawal symptoms. To avoid such complications, benzodiazepines are only recommended for short-term treatment of alcohol withdrawal.

In short

Benzos can be very useful for helping long terms alcoholics deal with the difficult withdrawal symptoms that can accompany the detox period. Just be mindful so as not to find yourself right back where you started.


1. Williams, D., McBride, A. (1998) The drug treatment of alcohol withdrawal symptoms: A systematic review. Alcohol & Alcoholism. 33(2), 103-115

2. Saitz, R., Friedmn, L. S., Mayo-Smith, M.F. (1996) Alcohol withdrawal: a nationwide survey of inpatient treatment practices. 10(9), 479-87

Naltrexone the addiction cure?

CNN released a news article a little while back titled “With anti-addiction pill, ‘no urge, no craving‘” that seems to suggest that a cure for addiction has been found. As usual, news reporting on these sort of topics revolves around a kernel of truth, with nice window dressing an a serving of embellishment.

While naltrexone, and topiramate, have been shown to improve outcomes in addiction treatment, they have by no means revealed anything that would warrant giving them the title “anti-addiction pills.”

Indeed, there are now a few different preparations of Naltrexone, including a long acting version called Vivitrol that while relatively expensive, has been shown to be relatively effective at cutting relapse rates for both alcoholics AND heroin (or opiate addicts). Note the difference though here between my language and that used by CNN; Naltrexone has been shown to reduce relapse rates, not eliminate them, and current research seems to show that it is most effective only for specific groups of alcoholics who have a specific type of Mu opioid receptor.

As the article points out, a combination of therapies, including behavioral therapies, medications, and social-support, are still the best option when it comes to addiction treatment.

We’re a long way off from finding anything that can be considered a cure for addiction, no matter what some treatment centers like to claim, but these pills should help us stem the tide while we keep looking…

Promising new medical treatment options for drug addiction!!!

Researchers are attacking the issue of drug addiction from multiple angles, and the results seem to be more and more ways to help. Some promising new developments in pharmacological (as in medication) therapies include a new cocaine-vaccine, as well as expanded use of Buprenorphine, for the treatment of opiate (heroin, morphine) addiction.

  • These medications are best used along with behavioral treatment in order to increase to probability of treatment success.
  • By reducing cravings, as well as reducing the effects of the drugs themselves, these medications can increase the length of time that patients will stay in treatment, which is the most reliable way of producing better treatment outcomes.

What else is new aside from medications?

There are also some exciting developments in the behavioral treatment, including Contingency Management (CM), a treatment method that tries to reteach addicts positive, drug-free behaviors by reinforcing those over the use of drugs. While some people still have problems with programs that use CM because of the notion of rewarding drug addicts for not using drugs, I say use whatever works!

Lastly, as early as 2003, researchers have noted that proper drug treatment may take longer than the 14-30 day programs that are currently being offered (1). In fact, while the article I’m referring too speaks specifically about methamphetamine addiction, we now know that the long use of many drugs, including cocaine, leads to long lasting brain changes that can take up to a year to show significant recovery.

I personally think that proper drug treatment for long time addicts (anyone with more than a year or so of heavy use) should take on the order of 6 months to a year, and should be supplemented by some outpatient post-care for an extended period of time (I’m far from the only one calling for this, see article 2). It’s the only sensible thing to do given the long term changes that such drug use creates in the brain…

I think it’s about time that insurance companies step up the plate and recognize that the huge cost of drug problems for our society (estimated at more than $100 billion annually) can be vastly reduced by providing sound, scientifically based, medical treatment options for those who need it.

(1) Margaret Cretzmeyer M.S.W, Mary Vaughan Sarrazin Ph.D., Diane L. Huber Ph.D., R.N., FAAN, CNAAc, Robert I. Block Ph.D. & James A. Hall Ph.D., LISW( 2003) Treatment of methamphetamine abuse: research findings and clinical directions. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment Volume 24.
A. Thomas McLellan, PhD; David C. Lewis, MD; Charles P. O’Brien, MD, PhD; Herbert D. Kleber, MD (2000). Drug Dependence, a Chronic Medical Illness: Implications for Treatment, Insurance, and Outcomes Evaluation. Journal of the American Medical Association, Volume 284, pp. 1689-1695.

Question of the day:
Do you know anyone who’s been through residential drug treatment?
How long were they in for?
How many times?
Did it help?

The Myth Of “Loss of Control” As A Scientific Truth Of Addiction

All About Addiction aims to be a place where an open conversation about issues relevant to addiction can be discussed. To that end, the following is a piece from Christopher Russell that challenges the notion that people in some way lose control over their behavior suggesting instead that their seemingly compulsive behavior is actually volitional. Look for an upcoming post featuring Dr. Jaffe’s views on some of the points made by Christopher.

The Myth of “Loss of Control” – By Christopher Russell

Popular wisdom among addiction neuroscientists states that while initial drug use is voluntary, with repeated drug consumption the consumer moves closer to a critical, tipping point separating non-addicted from addicted drug use (e.g. Leshner, 1997). At the passing of this critical point, believed to reside in drug-induced changes to one or more brain sites and gene expression, the individual is argued to lose his ability to control his use of drugs thereafter. Beyond this point, drug use is now something which happens to the individual, compelled by pharmacological causes, not something the individual does for phenomenological reasons.

This notion of a physical “loss of control” as an explanation for why some people continue to use drugs has prevailed as the core hypothesis of the view of addiction as a progressive disease for the past 200 years (Levine, 1978) and today remains largely accepted by the general public as a taken-for-granted, scientifically-proven truth of addiction. Furthermore, the primary use of the word addiction has come to describe a particular set of behaviours which have a causal basis operating irrespective of the will of the individual (Davies, 1996), with “addicts” used as the term to distinguish those who are no longer able to control their drug use from those who are still able to control their drug use.

But why has this belief become so ubiquitous among the general public when the neuroscience community has produced no evidence which is sufficient to warrant the conclusion that certain individuals are physically unable to stop using their drug? Additionally, no evidence has been provided which warrants the conclusion that a critical, tipping point exists in the brain at which a person shifts from non-addicted to addicted drug use, the point at which the “loss of control” is assumed to occur. Both beliefs remain hypotheses for which there is as yet no evidence, however, the public  understanding tends to be that these arguments have been long since proven as basic truths of addiction. What we do know and can show today is that some people find quitting a drug to be easy, a bit hard, quite hard, or extremely difficult. But evidence of the difficulty to exercise control should not be confused with an inability to exercise control, no matter how much the evaluation “I can’t stop” feels like a literal truth about our capabilities. This 3-part blog describes what we can and cannot show about the nature of drug use today and why the “loss of control” myth has prevailed as a “fact” of addiction for many people.

What we can and cannot show about addiction today

What we can and cannot show about the nature of addiction today is summed up by Akers (1991), a sociologist:

“The problem is that there is no independent way to confirm that the “addict” cannot help himself and therefore the label is often used as a tautological explanation of the addiction. The habit is called an addiction because it is not under control but there is no way to distinguish a habit that is uncontrollable from one which is simply not controlled”.

In other words, we have only shown that some people do not stop using drugs, not that they cannot stop using drugs. The belief that some people cannot control their drug use will soon be shown to be a scientific fact, which comes from the moral judgment that people who do not stop when they say they really want to stop and who continue to use even to the detriment of other important things in life like work and relationships must be doing so not of their own will, but rather, their behaviour must be being compelled by a force outside of their will. In other words, the value-laden judgment is that no person in their right mind would voluntarily pursue this life; therefore, it fits with our view of a moral society to think that a drug “addict” is not a morally reprehensible person, but rather, must be using drugs against his will. But we must remember that to say “for why else would this poor person continue to use drugs?” is a value-laden statement about how we believe morally decent humans should behave. We should not infer that people cannot stop using drugs simply because we observe them not stopping. This may be useful information in itself, but is not evidence of a loss of control.

What medications do and do not do

Of course I do not deny that the use of medications like naltrexone, acamprosate and buprenorphine make it easier to forego certain drug use by blocking parts of the brain which motivate drug use. I would encourage people to use these medications if they find it helps them to not use other drugs. However, reducing the difficulty of quitting should not be confused with restoring the individual’s ability to quit as if this ability was at any point lost. Medications can help people quit using drugs and great strides are being made to manufacture medications which make the process of quitting easier to do and tolerate. However, these medications are not necessary for controlling drug use in the way heart medicines, radiation therapy, and insulin is necessary to stave off the mortal threats of heart conditions, cancers, and diabetes respectively.  These groups of people do not have agency over their conditions in the way drug users have over their behaviour.

No medication has yet been shown to restore a drug user’s free will to reject drugs. Additionally, manufacturing medications has long been considered by addiction researchers such as Bruce Alexander, Stanton Peele, and John Davies to be focusing on the thin edge of the wedge; too much focus on the uses of medication, they would argue, restricts the need for drug users and treatment providers to consider a broad social analysis of why drug use is so prevalent in our societies.

The paradox of “behaving responsibly” after control is lost

The paradox inherent to the belief that some drugs erode free will and others can restore free will is that a drug user is expected to exercise his control and his will to sign up for and attend treatment and take medication like a “responsible” person should do precisely when we believe he has been robbed of his control and will to make choices about drugs. This paradox is also seen in the myth that an “addict can only quit after he hits rock bottom” which is promulgated by the 12-step movement; we expect people to show free will to quit precisely when they are thought to be least free to make choices about drugs. In other words, we expect so much self-control from those we believe are no longer capable of self-control!

The defence of this paradox has tended to be along the line of “he has not lost his free will to control all parts of his life, only the parts which involve drugs”. In one of his early speeches in San Diego, June 6th, 1989, William Bennett, former National Drug Policy Director and drugs czar appointed by President George H. W. Bush, defined an “addict as a man or a woman whose power to exercise rational volition has been seriously eroded by drugs, and whose life is organised largely – even exclusively – around the pursuit and satisfaction of his addiction”. Bennett’s statement reflects a common logical contradiction. Organisation of one’s life around anything is a rational skill, a wilful act, often requiring complex cognitive operations to be performed such as planning for an event which is two and three moves ahead. As Schaler (1991: 237) notes, “If an addict’s power to exercise rational volition is seriously eroded, on what basis does the addict organise life?” Interestingly another curious medical-moral contradiction by Bennett was noted by Massing in his book The Fix. Massing said “Addicts were in his (Bennett’s) view irresponsible individuals lacking basic levels of self-control” (p195). If these people do lack the capacity for self-control, how can they be responsible for not showing self-control? If they were irresponsible, it is their irresponsibility which causes drug taking; self-control is irrelevant. Bennett appears to be of the view that addiction is a moral failing which the addict is helpless to prevent, which is logically impossible.

Instead, what we do observe is that drug users are actually very good at putting in place the conditions by which drugs can be obtained, and that many people who are diagnosed as drug addicts do show a great capacity for self-control of behaviours except for those involving drugs. So addiction neuroscience is not pursuing a neurobiological basis of free will, per se, just the basis of our free will to control drug use, which is an even harder premise to swallow.

Stay tuned for Dr Jaffe’s reponse and part 2 coming soon.


Akers, R. L. (1991). Addiction; the troublesome concept. The Journal of Drug Issues, 21(4). 777-793. (only available in print form at present).

Davies, J. B. (1996). Reasons and causes: Understanding substance users’ explanations for their behaviour. Human Psychopharmacology, 11, 39-48.

Leshner, A. I. (1997). Addiction is a brain disease, and it matters. Science, 278,45−47.

Levine, H. (1978). The discovery of addiction: Changing conceptions of habitual drunkenness in America. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 39, 143−174.

Massing, M. (1998). The Fix. University of California Press Ltd; London England.

Schaler, J. A. (1991). Drugs and free will. Society, 28(6), 235-248.

Replacement therapy as addiction treatment – Why it makes sense

I’m a little sick and tired of hearing discussions that continuously talk about opiate replacement therapy (think methadone, suboxone, subutex) as not being true addiction treatment because those individuals are still using a drug. While some recent advances will hopefully allow more and more people to achieve medication assisted recovery through antagonist therapies (like naltrexone and its once a month wonder Vivitrol), agonist therpy, or replacement therapy, has been working wonders with heroin addicts and other opiate addicts who have tried quitting multiple times and have failed only to succeed wonderfully using these medications.

What replacement therapy as addiction treatment looks like

A recent comment on this blog compared using suboxone to get off heroin to drinking beer while trying to quit liquor. Let’s assume for a second that this is a worthy comparison (although buprenorphine is a partial agonist for opiate receptors and not a full agonist), the one thing it’s missing is context, so let’s give it some: take Paul, a daily drinker who puts down a fifth of Vodka or more on a daily basis. He’s been doing this for years and the physical toll has been immense – His liver is failing along with his health and his pasty white skin looks good with his shuffling and  Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome due to improper thiamin (vitamin B) intake. He hasn’t been able to hold down a job for years due to the shaking and blacking out not to mention the need to always have alcohol around for when the withdrawal starts. He’s tried to quit drinking several times but the DTs, shakes, and generally horrible feeling almost always makes him go back to drinking soon after and even the few attempts at medically supervised addiction treatment failed when he relapsed within weeks of leaving treatment. One day, someone promises Paul a solution to all his problems and gives him a magical beer that he has to drink in the morning when he wakes up. Not believeing it, but figuring “what the heck,” Paul keeps drinking all that day but then remembers to take that pill early the next morning… He still drinks that first day, though not as much because he doesn’t feel like he needs it, and day by day he begins to consume less liquor and finds himself having that one beer in the morning and sometimes another in the middle of the day. Within a few weeks he’s drinking no more liquor and all he has are those two beers every day. He feels great, has started getting some color back and is looking healthier than ever. He’s even managed to get a little job, though he’s not overcommitting yet not fully believing that this will really last. His memory returns fully and he feels like he did 20 years earlier, hardly believing he’s given so much up for that liquor he doesn’t really want anymore. A year later Pual feels like a new man and never looks back.

Keeping our options – Replacement therapy included

As far as I’m concerned that story, which we hear over and over with buprenorphine-using ex heroin addicts, is not only worth keeping patients medicated forever but makes the notion of not offering replacement therapy when it is appropriate simply crazy. I didn’t even get into the fact that reductions of this kind in heroin use bring about other great health benefits like lower injection rates that bring down HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C infections not to mention all the other complications that injecting is good for.

Like we’ve said many times here on A3, there is no single addiction treatment that will work for everyone but it is absolutely crazy to dismiss therapies that have been repeatedly shown to work (yes, including AA and other 12-step based approaches) and make lives endlessly better. We have a whole box full of addiction treatment tools, let’s not start trying to hammer with a flathead screwdriver please…

The genetics of quitting smoking- Bupropion and nicotine metabolism

If you’ve been reading A3 for a while, you know that we’re big supporters of scientific progress in addiction treatment. While it may be true that addicts need to want recovery in order to truly turn their lives around, the choice is hardly ever that simple and if we can tip the balance in the favor of treatment, or a better way of life, I say let’s go for it. When it comes to genetics and addiction, I’ve normally talked only about the fact that a person’s genetic code may predispose them to addiction or to other related conditions (like depression, anxiety, and so on). Aside from a single mention of pharmacogenomics, I don’t think I’ve spoke much about the way genetics can help us tailor addiction treatment to individual needs. We’re about to fix that.

Replacement therapies and quitting smoking

You’ve heard of nicotine patches and gums, right? In the research community, those are all known as Nicotine Replacement (NR) therapy and they’ve proven to be some of the most helpful tools for those who are quitting smoking. By allowing smokers to still get the nicotine their body craves (even though there are thousands of other chemicals in cigarettes that likely make them even more satisfying) without having to light up, these NR methods let cigarette addicts get their NIC fix while slowly lowering their dose and getting away from the habit of putting a cigarette in their mouth. Like methadone, buprenorphine, and other replacement therapies, the idea is to move addicts one step away from the actual addictive behavior and allowing them to begin adopting a healthier way of living. Replacement therapies are very successful, even if some people hate the idea of giving drugs to drug addicts, and nicotine replacement works well by itself for some people (though only about 20%).

But when it comes to nicotine, like with many other drugs, different people metabolize the stuff at different rates. The individual variability in the internal processing of nicotine greatly affects how many cigarettes individuals smoke and also the probability that they will become addicted to tobacco (people who metabolize nicotine more quickly smoke more and are more likely to become addicted to smoking). Fast metabolizers are also half as likely to be able to use nicotine replacement alone to quit smoking (1). However, when you put all of the addiction research together, it becomes pretty obvious that the same variability in nicotine metabolism can also help us determine the best course of treatment for tobacco addiction.

Metabolism, treatment, and the best way to quit smoking

Bupropion helps fast metabolizers increase their quitting chancesFortunately for smokers, the only research finding in this area hasn’t been that slow metabolizes have a much better chance of quitting smoking with nicotine replacement therapy. The same group of addiction researchers (led by Caryn Lerman of University of Pennsylvania), also found that buporopion, the smoking cessation medication everyone knows as Zyban (and the antidepressant called Wellbutrin), could help those fast metabolizers catch up with the slow metabolizers when it came to quitting (see the figure on the left taken from the actual study – you see that the dark bars, who are the bupropion patients, do as well as the white bars regardless of their metabolism rate, which is on the bottom). The researchers found that while slow matabolizers of nicotine did much better with simple smoking cessation therapy and fast metabolizers did very poorly (30% versus 10% quit respectively in each of the groups), adding bupropion made all groups look essentially the same (2). The moral? While those slow metabolizers don’t really get much of a benefit from using bupropion since they do pretty well with talk therapy or nicotine replacement alone, the fast metabolizers really need it to even their chances of quitting – and once they get bupropion, they do pretty well!

Genetics and addiction treatment – is this just the beginning?

Hopefully you’re now convinced that genetics can really help us determine what treatment course will best suit a specific person over another. There’s little question that this sort of approach is in its infancy, and you certainly can’t go to a doctor right now and get your metabolism rate for a drug analyzed (unless you’re part of a research study), but this sort of work shows great promise in improving the outcomes of addiction treatment. When you look back at that original paragraph, and the quite common thinking that addicts need to WANT to be better – I would argue that those fast metabolizers probably wanted to quit smoking as much as anyone else in the study, and their physical makeup just made it that much more difficult for them. I think that if you look at the science of addiction closely, you’ll find that this supposed lack-of-motivation is sometimes more of a myth than a reality. Many addicts want to get better, they want to stop behaving in ways that specifically mess up their lives but they just find it incredibly difficult. My hope is that this is where science can truly make a difference, by making it just a little bit easier…

Hopefully one day we’ll be able to specifically adjust addiction treatment programs according to individual patients’ needs, including the use of medications, specific behavioral treatments, and more.


1) Robert A. Schnoll, Freda Patterson, E. Paul Wileyto, Rachel F. Tyndale, Neal Benowitz, & Caryn Lerman. Nicotine metabolic rate predicts successful smoking cessation with transdermal nicotine: A validation study (2009).

2) F Patterson, RA Schnoll, EP Wileyto, A Pinto, LH Epstein, PG Shields, LW Hawk, RF Tyndale, N Benowitz & C Lerman1. Toward Personalized Therapy for Smoking Cessation: A Randomized Placebo-controlled Trial of Bupropion (2008).