(MINNEAPOLIS) -- A drug used to treat the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease may curb compulsive buying in shopaholics, a new study found.
The drug, called memantine, helps people with Alzheimer's disease think more clearly by reducing overactivity in the brain. But it also eases impulsivity, a trait tied to rash decisions and impractical purchases.
"In a way, compulsive buying is similar to other addictions in that people are thinking about the immediacy of the reward without considering the consequences," said study author Dr. Jon Grant, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. "We asked: Could we use a medication to essentially enhance decision-making as a way to help them with their behavior?"
Grant and colleagues recruited eight compulsive buyers, all women, to take memantine for 10 weeks, and used cognitive tests and surveys to track impulsive thoughts and spending. In the end, they found significant reductions in both.
"People with compulsive spending don't think through the full range of consequences of their behavior, and that improved with this medication," said Grant.
The study, published in the May issue of Annals of Clinical Psychiatry, gives hope to an estimated six percent of Americans who struggle with the euphoric highs and guilt-ridden lows of compulsive buying.
"It can interfere with people's jobs, their marriages," said Grant, describing how compulsive buyers squander their savings and invent lies to explain their actions. "All of this leads to incredible personal distress. A person might feel depressed and even suicidal because they don't know how to control their behavior and feel bad about being dishonest."
Despite being widely recognized as a disorder on par with alcoholism or gambling addiction, compulsive buying is not listed in the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and there is no standard treatment.
"There is some evidence that cognitive behavioral therapy can benefit people with this problem," said Grant, describing the psychotherapeutic technique that aims to replace dysfunctional behaviors with healthier habits. "Antidepressants have also been tried but were largely unsuccessful. But this study represents at least a possible pharmacological approach."
Before memantine can be approved for the treatment of compulsive shopping, it has to be tested against a placebo in clinical trials, said Grant, adding that the drug is also being tested in other impulse disorders, including alcoholism and obsessive compulsive disorder.
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