Monday, June 8, 2009

A Drug for Kleptomania?

Naltrexone curbs shoplifting.

It seems like such an unlikely finding: In a University of Minnesota study of kleptomania—the compulsion to steal—a popular medicine used to treat both heroin addiction and alcoholism drastically reduced stealing among a group of 25 shoplifters. The drug, naltrexone, blocks brain receptors for opiates. It is one of the few drugs available for the treatment of alcoholism, and continues to gain momentum as a treatment for opiate addiction.

In an article for the April issue of Biological Psychiatry, Jon Grant and colleagues at the University of Minnesota School of Medicine record the results of their work with 25 kleptomaniacs, most of them women. All of the participants had been arrested for shoplifting at least once, and spent at least one hour per week stealing. The 8-week study is believed to be the first placebo-controlled trial of a drug for the treatment of shoplifting.

In the April 10 issue of Science, Grant said that “Two-thirds of those on naltrexone had complete remission of their symptoms.” According to Samuel Chamberlain, a psychiatrist at the University of Cambridge in the U.K., the study strongly suggests that “the brain circuits involved in compulsive stealing overlap with those involved in addictions more broadly.” The study, in short, strengthens the hypothesis that the shoplifting “high” may have much in common with the high produced by heroin or alcohol.

Researchers are also working with the drug memantine as a treatment for compulsive stealing.

The finding lends additional evidence to the theory that shoplifting is a dopamine- and serotonin-driven disorder under the same medical umbrella as drug addiction and alcoholism. Preliminary research has shown that naltrexone may also have an effect on gambling behavior.

If so-called “behavioral addictions” continue to display biochemical similarities with “chemical addictions,” the move to broaden the working definition of addiction will continue to intensify. And the same sorts of questions that plague addiction research will be replayed in the behavioral sphere: What level of shoplifting constitutes the disorder called kleptomania? Isn’t the medicalization of shoplifting just a way to excuse bad behavior? Is medical treatment more effective than jail time? From a legal point of view, what is the the difference between kleptomania and burglary?

In his book, America Anonymous, Benoit Denizet-Lewis quotes lead study author Jon Grant: “With all addictions, a person’s free will is greatly impaired, but the law doesn’t want to entertain that.... Why shouldn’t someone’s addiction be considered as a mitigating factor, especially in sentencing?”

Photo Credit: Napo Hampshire Branch

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