It appears that a drug commonly used to treat alcohol and drug addiction has a similar effect on the compulsive behavior of kleptomaniacs – it curbs their urge to steal, according to new research at the University of Minnesota.
Kleptomania is a type of impulse control disorder characterized by persistent and recurrent patterns of stealing, where afflicted individuals often experience an irresistible urge to steal items they often don't even need. In a rigorous study design, researchers at the University of Minnesota School of Medicine recruited individuals with kleptomania who were actively experiencing urges to steal and randomized them to receive treatment with either naltrexone or placebo.
Naltrexone is a drug that blocks the effects of endogenous opiates that may be released during stealing; in other words, it blocks the part of the brain that feels pleasure with certain addictive behaviors. They found that after eight weeks of treatment, naltrexone was able to reduce the urges to steal and stealing behavior in people with kleptomania. Its side effects were generally mild.
The Medical School's Department of Psychiatry conducted a double-blind study of 25 men and women ages 17-75, who spent an average of at least one hour a week stealing. Those who took the drug Naltrexone (mean dose of 117mg/day) reported significantly greater decline in stealing behavior compared to those taking placebo.
"It gets rid of that rush and desire," said Jon Grant, M.D., J.D., M.P.H., a University of Minnesota associate professor of psychiatry and principal investigator of the study. "The difference in their behavior was significant, and these people were really troubled by their behavior."
A recent, large epidemiological study of about 43,000 adults found that more than 11 percent of the general population admitted to having shoplifted in their lifetime. It is unclear, however, how many people who steal suffer from kleptomania.
While the drug is not a cure for kleptomania, Grant said it offers hope to those who are suffering from the addiction. He also said the drug would most likely work best in combination with individual therapy.
"These are people who steal even though they can easily afford not to," Grant said.
Naltrexone is approved by the FDA for use in alcohol and opiate dependence, but it also has been studied and proved successful in helping gambling addicts. Naltrexone is sold under the brand names Revia and Depade. An extended-release formulation is sold under the name Vivitrol.
The research was supported by a Career Development Award from the National Institute of Mental Health and the University of Minnesota Academic Health Center.
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