We've reached a 'milestone' in treating drug addiction -- but there's a catch

A new study suggests that a stimulant drug used in the ADHD medication Adderall could be useful in helping to treat cocaine addiction.

This isn’t the first time the drug, called dexamfetamine, has been studied as a potential component of addiction treatment. Problem is, most of these studies have been very small, as neuroscience journalist Maia Szalavitz reported for Time in 2008. Some of them found no effect.

Until now, that is.

Essentially, the drug would treat cocaine addicts with a chemically similar (albeit somewhat different) version of the very drug they’re hooked on.

It might seem counterintuitive, but years of research suggests the method is one of the best options available for certain types of addiction, like heroin addiction. Methadone clinics operate on this principal. They offer people addicted to heroin and opioid painkillers a lab-made version of the drug in smaller, sustained doses. And so far, the treatment has been found to work better than any other heroin-addiction therapy.

That success has had scientists wondering for years: Would a similar approach work for other drugs like cocaine?

A new high-calibre study published Friday in the journal The Lancet has some promising results. The randomised, double-blind trial of 73 people found that, as compared with participants who were given a placebo, those who were given the stimulant drug dexamfetamine along with two lab-produced opioid medications used cocaine significantly less frequently over the course of the trial.

Like any treatment, though, this one comes with some potential downsides. Treating cocaine addicts with amphetamines is not the same as treating heroin addicts with methadone. For one thing, high doses of the main active ingredient in dexamfetamine (amphetamines) have been linked with serious health risks, from brain damage to heart attacks and strokes. The reason this isn’t a huge problem with methadone treatments for heroin and opioid painkiller addiction, Szalavitz writes, is because people develop tolerance to opioid medications, blocking high doses of the drug from being lethal.

Some other limitations of the study include the fact that most of its participants were male and white, so the effect of the treatment on other groups could be different. Plus, all of the participants also tested positive for cocaine and heroin and had a history of addiction to both drugs. Many reported regularly using other drugs as well, including alcohol and/or marijuana.

Still, the results are promising.

“Our findings are an important contribution to the search for effective pharmacotherapies for cocaine dependence,” the researchers write in their paper. “It is the first study that shows the benefits of a robust dose of sustained-release dexamfetamine as a valuable … medication in the treatment of cocaine dependence.”

Others agree that while the study has some weaknesses, it is hopeful, too.

“The more small groups of people that find something that works, the better off we’ll be,” Szalavitz told Business Insider in an email.

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