March 15, 2001 -- A pill commonly used to treat alcoholism and drug addiction may be able to help people overcome compulsive gambling, a new University of Minnesota study has found.
Researchers showed that the drug naltrexone, which the Food and Drug Administration approved for alcoholism in 1995 and for drug addiction in 1985, was able to reduce gambling urges in almost 75 percent of the 20 people in the study.
Those people who received a placebo only cut their gambling urges by 24 percent.
"My original hypothesis was that I should never delude myself to think that I have solved the gambling problem," said Dr. Suck Wong Kim, director of the impulse control disorder clinic at the University of Minnesota. "What I am trying to say is that we now have promising drug agent that may be working."
Drug Helps Curb Urges
Kim believes the drug can help people who gamble because it suppresses the "rush or a high" they usually got from playing and winning.
Naltrexone, commercially distributed by E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co.of Wilmington, Del., as Revia, regulates neural activity in a part of the brain where human cravings are processed.
Study participant Leo Neudecker, 56, of Plymouth, Minn., said the drug has significantly cut his urge to gamble.
"I was gambling regularly in casinos throughout the state, and I just realized that if I kept doing what I was doing, eventually, I would be dipping into my business and my nest egg," he said. "I went to GA [Gambler's Anonymous] a couple of times and that really didn't help."
Neudecker said gambling never caused any serious financial ruin for his family, but he was concerned enough to get help.
Taking the drug, he says, reduced his desire to gamble. And although he admits to participating in the office NCAA basketball poll ("it's only $5"), he was able to go to a casino recently with his friends to "hang out." He didn't feel the need to place a single bet.
"It's amazing, I can't explain it," he said. "It's not that I don't think about [gambling], but I have no real desire to go anymore."
But problems will face gamblers who may want to take this drug, which currently is in clinical trials. It is expensive, costing $3 a pill, and insurance companies do not cover this experimental indication.
Also, the dosage is higher than that recommended for alcoholism and may be lead to liver problems and bad interactions with over-the-counter pain relievers.
Thousands of Americans Suffer
Less than 5 percent of Americans develop serious gambling problems, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling in Washington, D.C. But the cost of treating this addiction nationwide is billions of dollars.
The habit is not easily treated, and many sufferers will lose their savings, homes and sometimes will commit suicide. Programs such as Gamblers' Anonymous have shown success rates as low as 8 percent.
A drug such as naltrexone, therefore, could make a substantial impact on the treatment of this condition.
But despite the serious financial and personal losses that compulsive gamblers face, federal grants for projects weigh in at a mere fraction of the losses — only about $6 million in federal money went to research last year, according to Kevin O'Neill, deputy director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey.
"I guess one of the reasons why GA has such low success rates is because these gamblers are very impulsive people," said Keith Whyte, executive director for the National Council on Problem Gambling in Washington, D.C. "It's hard even just to get many of them to a meeting."