Naltrexone Treatment for Amphetamine Addiction
Naltrexone is a medication originally designed to help recovering opioid addicts maintain drug abstinence during treatment. Substance abuse specialists and researchers eventually discovered that use of the medication can also help reduce alcohol cravings in recovering alcoholics. According to the results of recent studies, naltrexone also holds promise as a potential treatment for people recovering from amphetamine addiction. This news has significant real-world importance, because doctors currently have no medication options to offer to their amphetamine-addicted patients. Discovery of such a medication could potentially help vast numbers of people throughout the world successfully break the cycle of active amphetamine abuse.
Naltrexone is useful in treating opioid addiction because it belongs to a class of substances known as opioid receptor antagonists. Inside the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), small intestine and stomach, substances in this class attach themselves to specialized sites called opioid receptors, which sit on the surfaces of nerve cells. Once they’re in place, naltrexone and all other opioid receptor antagonists block the actions of opioid drugs such as heroin, oxycodone, and codeine, which need to reach the opioid receptors in order to produce their mind- and body-altering effects. People in recovery for opioid addiction can rely on naltrexone’s effects to reinforce their drug abstinence and reduce the temptation to relapse back into drug use.
Amphetamine Addiction Basics
The addiction-related risks of amphetamine use come from the drug’s ability to increase the supply of a chemical called dopamine in a part of the brain known as the limbic system. The limbic system is the brain’s pleasure center, and when dopamine levels in this system rise, they activate pleasurable sensations; when those pleasurable sensations grow strong enough, they result in an intense state commonly referred to as euphoria.
Whether they’re consciously aware of it or not, people who start abusing amphetamine (and a variety of other drugs) usually do so in order to increase their dopamine levels and experience euphoric pleasure. However, repeated boosting of the brain’s dopamine levels will eventually lead to a reduction in dopamine output and a reduction in the pleasure gained from drug use. People who fall into addiction typically make the critical mistake of increasing their amphetamine use in a vain attempt to re-experience the euphoric feelings that originally drew them to the drug.
Why Naltrexone Helps Reduce Amphetamine Use
Amphetamine is not an opioid drug; instead, it belongs to a group of drugs known generally as stimulants. So, why does naltrexone, an anti-opioid medication, have any usefulness in dealing with amphetamine addiction? According to a study published in 2008 in the American Journal of Psychiatry, some of the nerve cells in the brain’s limbic system have opioid receptors on their surfaces. In addition to their role in producing classic opioid-related mind alteration, these receptors help regulate the ways in which the brain uses dopamine. When dopamine levels rise, opioid receptors in the limbic system help produce the intense desire that leads to the onset of drug cravings and compulsive drug use. However, when naltrexone enters the limbic system, its blocking action on the opioid receptors apparently stops those receptors from producing increased cravings for amphetamine. In turn, when cravings for amphetamine drop, actual use of the drug also drops.
The authors of the study in the American Journal of Psychiatry tested their theory about naltrexone’s effects on amphetamine use by measuring levels of drug cravings and drug use in recovering amphetamine addicts taking naltrexone, and then comparing these findings to the levels of drug cravings and drug use in recovering amphetamine addicts who did not receive the medication. After a three-month period, the researchers found that recovering addicts taking naltrexone experienced significant decreases in the intensity of their drug cravings, as well as in their actual participation in drug use.
As of 2013, naltrexone is not an approved or widespread treatment for amphetamine addiction. While the study reported in the American Journal of Psychiatry shows promise, it was only conducted on a small scale in a single addiction recovery facility. Before doctors regularly prescribe naltrexone for amphetamine-related treatment, researchers will need to gather more information about the short- and long-term effects that the drug may have in larger, much more diverse groups of addicts. The typical avenue for gathering this type of information is a clinical trial, in which people from various walks of life volunteer to take a medication in order to increase knowledge regarding its potential effects and usefulness.