Could a humble nasal spray help Finland kick their gambling habit?
A team of scientists at Finland's National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) in Helsinki is kicking off the world’s first clinical trial for a fast-acting nasal spray that can help curb gambling cravings, AFP reports. Over time, the treatment could help people quit the habit completely.
The spray contains naloxone, a medication known as a competitive opioid antagonist that's usually used to block the effects of opioids and can help treat people suffering from opioid overdoses. It works by binding to opiate receptors without activating them, effectively blocking them and thereby reducing the effects of any opioid-containing drugs.
Addictive drugs and gambling work along the same neural circuits in very similar ways. Opioid antagonists, such as naloxone, also indirectly inhibit brain cells from producing dopamine, so people do not experience the same “buzz” of winning. In theory, this can eventually help wean them off gambling.
The trial, which starts this week, involves 130 participants and will last up to a year. For a three-month period, half will use the nasal spray while the other half will get a placebo spray. Scientists have previously carried out similar experiments using a pill form of naloxone, however, they found it took too long to take effect. Administering drugs through the nose is typically a lot quicker because the nasal cavity is covered with blood vessels that help fast absorption. For gambling addiction, something extremely compulsive in its nature, this is key.
“The urge to gamble is a very impulsive one. The need comes on very quickly. It could take up to an hour for a pill to work,” THL research professor Hannu Alho told Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE. “But then we got this idea to dilute the medicine in water and develop a nasal spray. We assume it will work quickly. We studied the response rate at the University of Turku, and yes, it did seem to work in the space of just a few minutes."
Gambling addiction is surprisingly common in Finland. Almost 3 percent of Finns suffer from some level of problematic gambling, the worst affected being young men in poor socio-economic situations. Up until last year, gambling machines were a completely normal part of the country's supermarkets. THL scientists have recently called for a ban on supermarket slot machines, and are trying to crack down on gambling apps. There's no easy way to remedy the "hidden addiction" of gambling, but this nasal spray could mean there's more hope on the horizon.