Last year, Canadian researchers completed the world’s first-ever study on ketamine therapy for gambling addiction. Modern research has previously confirmed ketamine’s potential for treating addiction, but this study is the first to specifically investigate ketamine therapy for addiction to gambling.
Compulsive gambling (also called “gambling disorder”) is a serious and potentially devastating problem, but it remains poorly understood and difficult to treat. While further studies are needed, research suggests that ketamine may have unique potential for treating gambling addiction by reducing cravings, treating underlying issues, and reshaping the brain’s built-in habits.
What causes gambling addiction?
While the term “addiction” is usually associated with substance use disorders, modern understandings of addiction show that compulsive behaviors can be just as complex, challenging, and serious as drug addictions.
Like other compulsive behaviors, gambling addiction is often a symptom of a larger problem that has gone untreated. Mayo Clinic explains:
“People who gamble compulsively often have substance misuse problems, personality disorders, depression or anxiety. Compulsive gambling may also be associated with bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).”
Usually, someone suffering from any addiction—whether it’s drugs, gambling, or even exercise—has underlying problems at the root of these behaviors. When depression, trauma, and other issues go untreated, the risk of losing control over compulsive and destructive behaviors increases.
In some cases, there may not be one clear cause of someone’s struggles with gambling. Genetics, environment, and stressful situations in daily life can also play a role.
How is gambling addiction treated?
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most common treatment for compulsive gambling. During CBT, the patient works with a therapist to understand their ingrained behavioral patterns, what triggers them, and how to replace old habits with healthier ones.
For many patients, CBT is an effective treatment for overcoming addictions and compulsive behaviors. For others, however—especially those suffering from depression, anxiety, or chronic stress—talk therapy alone is not enough.
While there is currently no FDA-approved medication to treat gambling addiction, medication may help in situations where someone has underlying mental health conditions or does not benefit from talk therapy. Often, combining medication with talk therapy is the best way to achieve a successful treatment outcome.
Can ketamine treat compulsive gambling?
Over the last decade, various studies have found that ketamine can successfully reduce cravings and usage in people who are dependent on cocaine, alcohol, and opiates. With this in mind, researchers are now investigating whether ketamine could also be beneficial for treating non-drug addictions and compulsive behaviors.
While the full trial data has yet to be published, leaders of the 2022 study on ketamine for behavioral addictions are optimistic:
One reason ketamine is so promising is its unique ability to “rewire” the brain. Instead of only treating symptoms, ketamine promotes long-term behavioral changes by creating new synapses in the brain. This phenomenon (also known as neuroplasticity) enhances the brain’s ability to reorganize, learn new behaviors, and change existing neural structures.
In the context of addiction, enhanced neuroplasticity allows the brain to overwrite positive associations with gambling and quickly form new, healthier habits. Ketamine may also be a viable therapy for gambling addiction because of its ability to treat underlying conditions such as depression, anxiety, OCD, and PTSD.
Bottom line: What to know about ketamine and gambling disorder
Preliminary evidence is encouraging, but for now, the verdict is still out on how effective ketamine may be for those suffering from gambling addiction. Since ketamine is thought to be an effective treatment for substance use disorders, researchers are eager to investigate how it may be similarly effective for other behavioral addictions like gambling.
If you or someone you know is struggling with gambling addiction, it’s important to seek
professional help and work with a care team to develop a comprehensive treatment plan. There is no one-size-fits-all treatment—but with the right approach, recovery is always possible.