A new study published this month by researchers from the Medical University of South Carolina found a dietary supplement appears to help teens quit their marijuana addiction. The study’s lead author says it’s the first time that researchers have ever found a treatment which impacted the number of teens who quit using marijuana in a study.
The medication, called N-Acetylcysteine (NAC) is sold over the counter. “One of the real challenges in child psychiatry is there’s a lot of caution around new medications and medications with high risk,” MUSC psychiatrist Kevin Gray told South Carolina Radio Network. “What was really appealing about NAC is that this is a medicine that has been FDA-approved for various other conditions for over 40 years.”
Researchers split 116 people aged 15-21 into two groups. One group received the medication, while the other received a placebo. Both groups also received cessation counseling and were paid $5 for a clean drug test, $7 for the second, $9 for the third, and so on. A patient had to start over if they failed the test. Gray said the study found those who were given the supplement were twice as likely to have clean tests.
He said the evidence suggests that chronic self-administration of drugs alters the amount of the chemical glutamate in parts of the brain. Previous research at MUSC had found glutamate levels may affect a rat’s desire to use drugs, but did not use the drug on humans. NAC is commonly sold as an antioxidant supplement and is used by doctors to help treat patients who overdose on painkillers.
The results were published in this month’s edition of the American Journal of Psychiatry. The study was double-blind, meaning neither the researchers nor the patients knew who would get the actual medication or placebo. Gray said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the high number of teens who “abstained” from the drug by the end of the study.
Gray said marijuana addiction is a growing problem among high school students, but there is little in the way of effective treatment.
“I’m excited both as a scientist, but also as a clinician and treatment provider. Part of what got me into this research was being a frustrated clinician and trying to help patients and families that were struggling, and really sometimes feeling like I have to throw my hands up because I’m not quite sure what to do,” said Gray.
He hopes that the results of the test will eventually be significant in future drug treatments. However, he warned against leaping to conclusions– saying that addiction is a complicated problem that usually requires psychosocial therapy in addition to any medication. Gray added that future studies will look into whether the same results can be drawn from adults.
The study was funded by a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health.