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A nasal spray to curb gambling? Finnish health experts want to give it a try

A group of Finnish health experts plan to see if a nasal spray developed to treat opiate overdoses can be of use in treating people with obsessive gambling problems. Thirty participants have already signed up to take part in the study.

Image: Vesa Moilanen / Lehtikuva

Finland's National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) is planning to carry out an unusual experiment. Once enough participants can be found, it will conduct testing on the efficacy of a naloxone nasal spray in deterring people from gambling. If the experiment is successful, use of the spray could be extended to the treatment of other addictions as well.

A report from a few years ago found that 1.5 percent of Finns have a serious gambling problem and up to 18 percent more are at risk of developing a gambling dependency. While most Finns find it easy to walk by supermarket slot machines or ignore gambling websites, there are many people who feel they cannot resist the temptation.

A nasal spray containing naloxone is a prescription medicine that has been used successfully for emergency treatment of overdoses of heroine and other opiates. Naloxone was patented back in 1961 and in April 2014, the US Food and Drug Administration approved a hand-held pocket-sized automatic injector naloxone product for use in non-medical settings. Development of a nasal spray containing the medicine instead of an injection was then fast-tracked in the US to reduce rising death tolls from opiate overdoses.

Tried and true in the treatment of addictions

The nasal spray has been widely used to treat various addictions, but the idea to use it as a quick solution to deter people from gambling has not been studied previously.

Hannu Alho Image: Tommi Pesonen / Yle

THL's research professor Hannu Alho is quite optimistic about the Finnish study's potential. A similar study was carried out at THL five years ago that used a naloxone pill, and it seemed to be of benefit.

"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… 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," he explains.

In practice, this could mean that someone who feels compelled to gamble at a slot machine when they enter a shop can use the nasal spray and feel the urge to gamble start to dissipate before they reach the machines. 

"If you really want to play, you can use the spray and then the urge will go away. This is the hypothesis of our study," Alho says. "Preventing the urge with medicine might help them not to play or play for just a bit and then stop."

More volunteers needed

THL researchers hope to start the three-month experiment this month, after enough volunteers that meet the requirements of the study have signed up. Alho says they have enough room for 130 participants.

"They won't be reimbursed with money for participating, but they will receive treatment in the form of the medicine, along with support and motivation. Everyone will surely benefit. We saw already in our study with the pills that it successfully reduced the urge to gamble," Alho says.

The results of the study won't be ready for at least a year and a half, but Alho says that if they are satisfactory, the team has discussed expanding the testing to people with alcohol dependencies.

Extensive research over the last three decades has shown that the naloxone nasal spray is safe to use.

"This is a medicinal product with no side effects and no addictive properties of its own. In principal it can be used to treat any manner of additions," says Alho.