Helping Addicts with medications for cravings

If we could make it so drug addicts could stop craving the substances that have brought them to their knees, would relapse rates drop and addiction-treatment success rates soar? I sure hope so!

Medications that stop cravings?

I’ve already written about a study by the renowned addiction researcher Barry Everitt showing that medications could be used in treatment to help addicts who are struggling with strong cravings and the effect of triggers (see it here). Still, in that study the researchers used a drug that blocked pretty much all memory formation and my original idea had to do with using a very common drug, one being used every day for hypertension, and more recently, in the treatment of PTSD.

Well, a study recently completed revealed that indeed, propranolol, a common beta-blocker, may be useful in greatly reducing the amount of time needed to overcome the sometimes crippling effect of triggers on behavior.

How this trigger to cravings study worked

The researchers trained rats to take cocaine, and after they were well trained, allowed them to press a lever for a light that had previously been associated with the drug. This is a common method to test the way animals react to triggers that have been associated with the drug. Even though the animals are no longer getting any cocaine when the light goes on, the fact that it had been previously associated with the drug makes the animals press the lever, like an addict triggered by something they’ve associated with their drug use.

The animals that were given propranolol immediately after every session took half as long to stop pressing for the drug-associated light. It took multiple administrations of propranolol (seven to be exact), but the effect was clear. The next step is to see if the same effect can be observed in people.

Helping addicts transition to outpatient substance abuse treatment

I’ve been claiming for the past few years that if we look in the right places, we can find many ways to help struggling addicts who are having a hard time quitting using currently available methods. I think that the notion that sticking to the “best method we have right now” is unwise given the fact that science has progressed quite a bit in the past 20-30 years. I agree, and am thankful, that the system works for some, but there’s no question that many still have trouble recovering from addictions that devastate their own lives and the lives of many close to them. I think these medications can offer some serious help.

The thing is, that if we could seriously reduce the impact of cravings on relapse rates, it’s possible that addicts would be ready to move from residential to outpatient substance abuse treatment  more quickly. Indeed, the main reason for keeping people in residential treatment is the thinking that they’re not ready to be in the world given the influence of triggers. My guess is that this is true for some addicts, but if we could provide an intervention, like propranolol, that would significantly reduce the influence of triggers, outpatient substance abuse treatment, which is a cheaper option, will be useful for many more. This would mean more people in treatment that truly works for them for less money. Sounds good to me.

Citation:

Ashley N. Fricks-Gleason & John F. Marshall (2008). Post-retrieval ß-adrenergic receptor blockade: Effects on extinction and reconsolidation of cocaine-cue memories. Memory & Learning, 15, 643-648

Talking to NIDA about addiction research- Nicotine, cocaine, treatment matching and more

It’s not everyday that I get an invite to speak with NIDA‘s director, Dr. Nora Volkow, and so, even though it required my creative use of some VOIP technology from a living room in Tel-Aviv, I logged onto a conference call led by the leading addiction researcher. When my colleagues, Dirk Hanson and Elizabeth Hartney, were introduced, I knew I was in good company.

Addiction research directions the NIDA way

The call focused on some NIDA interests, including a nicotine vaccine, which Dr. Volkow seemed confident will triumphantly exit phase 3 trials in less than two years and potentially enter the market after FDA approval in three years or less. The vaccine, which seems to significantly and effectively increase the production of nicotine antibodies in approximately 30% of research participants, has shown promise as a tool for smoking cessation in trials showing complete cessation, or significant reduction in smoking among participants that produced sufficient antibodies. Obviously, this leaves a large gap for the 70% of participants for which the vaccine was not effective, but a good treatment for some is much better than no treatment for all. For more on the vaccine, check out Mr. Hanson’s post here.

Aside from the nicotine vaccine (and on a similarly conceived cocaine vaccine), our conversation centered on issues relevant to the suggested new DSM-5 alterations in addiction-related classifications. Dr. Volkow expressed satisfaction at the removal of dependence from the title of addictive disorders, especially as physical dependence is often part of opiate administration for patients (especially pain patients) who are in no way addicted to the drugs. Dr. Volkow also noted that while physical dependence in relatively easy to treat, addiction is not, a matter that was made all the more confusing by the ill-conceived (in her opinion, and in mine) term. Additionally, the inclusion of severity ratings in the new definition, allowing for a more nuanced, spectrum-like, assessment of addiction disorders, seemed to make Dr. Volkow happy in her own, reserved, way.

Treatment matching – rehab search for the 21st century

As most of my readers know, one of my recent interests centers on the application of current technology to the problem of finding appropriate treatment for suffering addicts. I brought the problem up during this talk, and Dr. Volkow seemed to agree with my assessment that the current tools available are nowhere near adequate given our technological advancements. I talked a bit about our upcoming addiction-treatment-matching tool, and I hope that NIDA will join us in testing the utility of the tool once we’re up and running. I truly believe that this tool alone will allow more people to find appropriate treatment increasing the success rate while maximizing our system’s ability to treat addicts.

Involving the greater public in addiction research

It wasn’t until the end of the conversation that I truly understood the reason for the invitation (I’m slow when it comes to promotional issues) – NIDA is looking to move the discussion about it’s goals and directions out of the academic darkness in which they’ve lurked for years, and into the light of online discussion. I’m in no way offended by this, especially since this was exactly my point in starting All About Addiction in the first place. If anything, I’m honored to be included in the select group of people NIDA has chose to carry their message, especially since the conversation was an open, respectful, and data-centered one. I hope more of these will occur in the future.

Resolving confusion about addiction

One of the final points we got to discuss in the too-short hour we had Dr. Volkow on the “phone” had to do with the oft misunderstood concept of physical versus psychological addictions. I’ve written about this misconception in the past, and so I won’t belabor the point here, but it’s time that we gave our brain the respect it deserves by allowing it to join the rank, along with the rest of our body, and the physical realm. We’re no longer ignorant of the fact that our personalities, memories, feelings, and thoughts are driven by nothing more than truly physical, if miniature, happenings in our brains. In the same way that microbe discovery improved our well-being (thank you Pasteur), it’s time the concept of the very physical nature of our psychological-being improves our own conceptualization of our selves.

We are physical, spiritual, and awesome, but only if we recognize what it is that makes “us.”

ADD and ADHD medications: Lessons from a crystal meth experiment

I’ve recently completed a study that I presented at the Society For Neuroscience (SFN) meeting in DC. The study was actually aimed at looking at the usefulness of two medications in interfering with the rewarding qualities of methamphetamine. The thinking was the if we could figure out a way to interfere with crystal meth being perceived as rewarding by the brain, we may be able to help addicts from continued use after a relapse.

Two prescription stones but only one hits crystal meth

The two medications are atomoxetine and bupropion, though you may know them as Strattera and Wellbutrin or Zyban. Their mechanisms of action are similar, but distinct enough that we wanted to test them both. The results of the study, in one sentence, were that atomoxetine (or Strattera), but not bupropion (or Zyban) succeeded in eliminating animals’ preference for meth if given along with it. The implication is that in the future, these, or other, similar, medications, may be given to newly recovering addicts. The hope would be that by taking the drug, they may be somewhat protected in the case of a relapse. If they don’t enjoy the drug during the relapse, they may have a better chance of staying in treatment.

More to these medications than meets the eye

I learned some other interesting things while preparing, and then carrying out, the study. While Zyban could, by itself, be liked by the animals, Strattera did not seem to produce any sort of preference. Given the common use of these drugs in the treatment of ADHD, the difference may be very important. As you may recall, I’ve talked before about the connection between impulse control problems and being predisposed to developing addiction. Given this relationship, it would seem that we’d want to be especially careful about using drugs that can cause abuse with this population. Many of the stimulants used to treat ADD and ADHD can indeed lead to abuse, as their effects are very similar to speed, or crystal meth (Adderall and Ritalin come to mind). Zyban’s abuse liability is definitely lower, given the greatly reduced preference animals develop for it. Still, it seems that Strattera’s abuse potential is almost zero. In trial after trial, animals given atomoxetine fail to show a preference for the drug.

To my mind, this means that as long as it’s successful in treating the attention problems, atomoxetine is the better candidate. All in all, I’d think the first choice should be the one that helps the symptoms of ADHD while having a reduced likelihood of dependence. Obviously, if the drug is not able to treat the problem, other options should be selected, but it seems to me that given the known relationship between attention deficit problems and addiction, the question of abuse liability should play a significant role in the selection of medication.

Once again, this doesn’t mean that all users of Adderall, Ritalin, or the other stimulant ADHD medications will develop an addiction to their prescription. In fact, we know that rates of addiction to prescriptions are generally relatively low. Nevertheless, I’d consider ADHD patients a vulnerable population when it comes to substance abuse so I say better safe than sorry.

The benefits of marijuana: Things are far from all bad for weed

Marijuana can certainly be beneficial.

It’s true that essentially every drug has some abuse liability. However, somewhere in the vicinity of 85% of those who try any given drug will never develop abuse or addiction problems (yes there are probably variations based on specific drugs, but that’s a good estimate).  As we all know, marijuana is a drug that receives a lot of attention and drives intense debate when it comes to its benefits and harms.  While most of the posts on my site focus on the other 15%, there is, and continues to be, evidence for the benefits of marijuana and other drugs that directly activate cannabinoid receptors.

Some of the shown benefits of marijuana

THC, the active ingredient in cannabis, is known to cause sedation, euphoria, decrease in pain sensitivity, as well as memory and attention impairments.  But there are some aspects of the cannabinoid receptors that have been shown to be effective in AIDS, glaucoma and cancer treatments.

Stimulation of cannabinoid receptors causes an increase in appetite and therefore helps with the wasting syndrome often seen as a side effect in AIDS treatments or those with eating disorders. Since THC activation decreases intra-ocular pressure, another area in which marijuana has been proven to be effective is in the treatment of glaucoma.  THC’s anti-emetic (or anti-vomiting) properties also make it a very useful tool for combating the side effects of cancer treatments.

Still, the activation of cannabinoid receptors is not synonymous with smoking weed. In fact, there are a number of other possible ways to consume THC and other cannabinoid-receptor activators. Also, THC is a potent immune suppressing agent, so in someone who already has a compromised immune system, such as AIDS patients, marijuana and other THC compounds could increase the risk of infection.

Future promise for the use of THC in medicine

There is some evidence that of the 2 major THC receptors (CB1 and CB2), one is associated with the immuno-suppression that occurs after chronic usage and the other is associated with the the more beneficial aspects we’d discussed. In the future, we may be able to produce a compound that activate only the behavioral effects and could therefore be used more safely for AIDS patients. Marijuana lovers will say that we should leave things as they are, but I’m all for less immuno-suppression with my cancer therapy.

Again, just because activation of THC receptors can provide the above benefits does not necessarily mean one should smoke marijuana. As usual, the benefits and risks have to be considered and one has to reach an educated, informed, conclusion. Still, there’s little doubt that in some situations, the use of marijuana, or other THC activators is not only prudent, but indeed recommended.

Co-authored by: Jamie Felzer

Thinking straight might help: Modafinil in early recovery from crystal meth addiction

I’ve mentioned before that I believe medications can be a very helpful tool in early recovery, especially for specific individuals who need help getting over the initial, most difficult, period (look here).

If you take a look at my first post about meth and its effects on the brain, you’ll read that crystal meth use can negatively affect the function of a neurotransmitter called dopamine. One of the dopamine’s important roles in the brain has to do with impulse inhibition and control over behavior.

The role of impulse control in early recovery trouble

With a reduced capacity for behavioral control, it’s no surprise that people in early recovery find it especially hard to resist urges to use again. When you consider that it’s already been shown that addicts are more likely to have impulse control problems, like ADD/ADHD, the role of impulsivity becomes even more important for understanding addictions. Having less control over a preoccupation that results in obsessive-thoughts and compulsive-actions means that slips, or relapses, are an almost expected outcome.

If we could only figure out how to give people better control over their impulses, we’d possibly better equip them to prevent their own relapses.

ADHD medication for crystal meth addiction help

Well, a number of drugs used for ADHD have been researched as possible aids for addicts, and it seems like Modafinil (marketed as Provigil) may help with exactly the cognitive deficits that seem to trip meth (and cocaine) addicts in early recovery up. In fact, the results seem to be strong enough to warrant the initiation of some larger scale investigations. This, along with previous findings that reported relatively low abuse-potential for modafinil suggest that this may indeed prove to be a useful medication.

No one is saying that this is the pill that will cure addiction, or even that a pill like that is going to be found. But hopefully, along with other medications (like Bupropion), the number of tools in the proverbial toolbox of addiction specialists will continue to increase, allowing them to better treat a larger proportion of those suffering from addiction.

Citations:

Jasinski, D. R & Kovacevic-Ristanovic, R. (2000). Evaluation of the Abuse Liability of Modafinil and Other Drugs for Excessive Daytime Sleepiness Associated with Narcolepsy. Clinical Neuropharmacology, 23, 149-156.

Ling, W., Rawson R., & Shoptaw, S. (2007). Management of methamphetamine abuse and dependence. Current Psychiatry Reports, 8, 345-354.

Depression medication – Evidence and usefulness

Depression medication has been widely prescribed since the early days of Prozac (Fluoxetine) and the discovery that depression can be helped by taking a pill. A new study shows that in reality, only those who suffer from severe depression may actually benefit from taking the meds though.

Depression is commonly seen in addiction treatment so I think the topic is relevant for us. But before I explain the details, a little review of depression medication would be useful.

A review of depression medication

The type of medication has gone through some major changes, starting with TCAs and MAOIs and ending up at SSRIs and SNRIs. MAOIs blocked an enzyme from breaking down Serotonin, which increased the levels of this emotion-enhancing neurotransmitter (MDMA, or ecstasy effects Serotonin as well). SSRIs and SNRIs block the recycling of serotonin (SSRI means Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor) and a broader group of neurotransmitters (SNRI = Serotonin Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitor).

The problem with MAOIs was that their side effects were often worse than the depression the patients were suffering. The same side effect problems were also common with TCAs (tricyclic antidepressants) because of the numerous effects they had on many systems in the brain.

MAOIs and TCAs are essentially gone from the U.S. market but are still prescribed in other countries to some extent. SSRIs and NSRIs are the most common drugs for depression treatment here, but there are still major differences between different specific pills.

New study results – Pills good for severe depression

This new meta-analysis (a combined analysis of a bunch of older papers), seems to show that Tofranil (a TCA) and Paxil (a SSRI) are only more effective than a placebo sugar-pill in patients who suffer from severe depression. The problem is that most people who are prescribed anti-depressants today suffer from mild or moderate depression. This brings into question the wide use of the drugs.

It even seems possible that the reason side effects are worse than the depression for some patients is because the depression itself was simply not that severe in the first place and would have been better helped by the use of psychotherapy without medications.

Some limitations of the study

It’s important to realize that this study looked only at two different medications, both of which are known to have a significant problem with negative side-effects. Future studies will most likely cover more of what’s available and since depression and addiction are so closely associated, you can count on me revisiting this again!

Citation:

Jay C. Fournier; Robert J. DeRubeis; Steven D. Hollon; Sona Dimidjian; Jay D. Amsterdam; Richard C. Shelton; Jan Fawcett (2010). Antidepressant Drug Effects and Depression Severity: A Patient-Level Meta-analysis. JAMA, 303(1):47-53.

Alcohol, benzos, and opiates – Withdrawal that might kill you

Along with teaching and telling stories, part of my goal here at All About Addiction is to get important information out to those who can benefit from it.

Most drug users who quit drug use “cold turkey” have to go through withdrawal of some sort. Withdrawal is never comfortable, but sometimes it can actually be dangerous. The list below outlines some drugs that should NEVER be quit suddenly without medical supervision. This is the reason why some rehab treatment is preceded by a medical detox period lasting anywhere from 2 days to a week or more.

Which withdrawals can actually kill?

  1. Alcohol – Yes, after long term use, withdrawal from alcohol can kill. Alcohol withdrawal syndrome can take on mild, moderate, or severe forms. If while withdrawing from alcohol a person develops a fever, extreme nausea, diarrhea, or DT (delirium tremens), they need to be rushed to see a doctor as soon as possible. In fact, alcohol withdrawal after heavy, chronic use is best managed under the care of a doctor or a professional medical detox unit. By using medications that relieve withdrawal symptoms, these professionals can essentially eliminate any of these risks.
  2. Benzodiazepines – Benzos were introduced as a replacement to barbiturates that were causing common overdose cases, many of which resulted in death. Nevertheless, withdrawal from extended use of benzodiaepines can kill. Whether Xanax (alprazolam), Ativan (lorazepam), Valium (diazepam) or other variations, long term use of Benzodiazepines requires medical supervision to be completed successfully with minimal side-effects and risk to the patient. Normally, the withdrawal process is managed by slowly reducing the dose and transferring the patient from a slow acting, to a long acting, form of the drug. Still, full resolution of benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome can take up to 6 months (or even longer).
  3. Opiates – Many people are surprised to learn that in most cases, withdrawal from many opiates is not deadly. Still there are some very important exceptions. Methadone, a long-acting opiate often prescribed as a replacement for heroin can cause death during withdrawal if it’s consumed in high enough doses for a long enough period. The debate of whether the state should be prescribing something like this should be saved for a later date. It is one of the better ways of getting people off of heroin, though obviously, all it does is replace dependence on one substance with another, more manageable one. Also, some of the recently popular methods of rapid-detox from heroin addiction can themselves cause death, and many other negative side-effects. Overall, I would recommend checking in with a physician and conducting opiate withdrawal in a controlled setting. Withdrawal under Suboxone or Subutex can be far less horrific.

Much of the danger in withdrawal from all of these drugs has to do with the body’s response to the extreme changes in the chemical processes going on in the brain and the rest of the body. Alcohol, Benzos, and Opiates interference with the GABA system, the body’s most common downregulator.

Withdrawal from these drugs is like trying to turn the heat up in a cold house with a broken thermostat and an out of control heater – It won’t always lead to disaster, but it’s a bad idea.

The withdrawal danger summary

That’s pretty much it. “Cold Turkey” withdrawal from cocaine, marijuana, crystal meth, ecstasy, GHB (never mix GHB with alcohol though!!!), and many other recreationally used drugs will not lead to death in the vast majority of cases. While it may make you uncomfortable, and you may feel moody, constipated, dehydrated, hungry or nauseous, and a whole slew of other symptoms, the chances of someone actually dying from withdrawal are very small.

If you have any more specific questions regarding your case though, don’t shy from asking me!