A Pill to Stop Gambling? It’s Possible, U Study Finds

By Suzanne Sobotka, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.

The next time you get the urge to play the slots, maybe you should pop a vitamin instead.

A University of Minnesota study found a supplement known as N-acetyl cysteine might reduce cravings in pathological gamblers by targeting glutamate, a chemical in the brain that responds to rewards.

The eight-week study by psychiatrist Jon Grant was small. It involved 23 people who took the supplement, an antioxidant sold over-the-counter for wide-ranging health problems such as bronchitis, Alzheimer’s disease and HIV.

Sixteen participants in the trial reported decreased frequency and intensity of their cravings to gamble, and fewer disruptions in their daily lives from those cravings, Grant said.

“It looks very promising,” said Grant, whose study will be published in Saturday’s issue of Biological Psychiatry.

After the initial study, he invited the 16 whose symptoms improved to participate in a second study in which they would not know whether they would receive the supplement or a placebo. Thirteen people agreed.

In that study, 83 percent of the people who took the supplement reported a continued improvement in symptoms, compared with 29 percent in the placebo group.

Grant said these findings “trend toward significance,” but that a larger study is needed to confirm the findings.

He intends to seek federal funding soon for that study.

Grant acknowledged that the treatment might not work for everyone.

“No single treatment has worked for everyone,” he said, “but it’s important that people have options.”

Side effects of the supplement in the study were minimal. Grant said some people reported gas or bloating, but did not stop taking the supplement.

The average dose of N-acetyl cysteine given in the study was 1,400 milligrams, about two or three pills. Grant said it usually took people a few weeks at this dose to notice a difference in their cravings.

He said someone might need to take the supplement for a year or longer, along with other medications or behavioral therapy, to see a long-lasting decrease in cravings.

Grant said the supplement costs about $20 to $25 for a month’s supply.

Despite the early promise of the supplement, Grant remained cautious about its use to treat gambling behaviors.

“People need to use it cautiously and with their doctor’s knowledge,” he said. “Just because the supplement is natural does not mean taking a larger dose is better.”

Grant is also researching the effects of N-acetyl cysteine on methamphetamine addiction, and is recruiting people for the trial. Those interested can call 612-273-9736.

Grant has been involved in numerous studies identifying drugs or supplements that can affect addictions.

Last year, he reported success using naltrexone, a drug to treat alcoholism, in reducing thefts by compulsive shoplifters.

Suzanne Sobotka can be reached at 651-228-5251 or [email protected]

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