'Psychedelic drugs to be used to treat behavioural addictions,' says biotech CEO in research breakthrough

24 November 2022, 11:03

CEO of biotech company explains how he is treating addiction.

Melissa Fleur Afshar

By Melissa Fleur Afshar

Biotech boss tells LBC how psychedelic drugs can ‘recalibrate’ the brain in order to treat addictions.

Amid soaring NHS referral rates, Awakn has set its sights on treating behavioural addictions with psychedelic drugs like ketamine and LSD.

Behavioural addictions like internet gaming disorder and binge eating disorder have been tormenting sufferers and their families for years, but there’s now greater cause for concern.

Earlier this year, the NHS revealed that addiction referral rates had risen by 42% between April and September 2022, while the Gambling Commission published a new report on the increasing number of children participating in gambling activities. This can be attributed to the prominence of online betting sites like William Hill.

With worrying numbers of people being beckoned toward the murky world of addiction, there’s now greater demand for more robust treatments.

Biotech company, Awakn Life Sciences, hopes to unveil a revolutionary treatment path to behavioural addiction sufferers. After seeing success in the application of psychedelic drugs in treating alcohol use disorder, Awakn are looking to extend this approach in a scientific first.

“For behavioural addictions, based upon research that our team have conducted the impact on the brain from repeated exposure to addictive behaviours is actually very similar to the impact on the brain of exposure to addictive substances,” said the biotech firm’s CEO Anthony Tennyson.

“So, we are going about treating behavioural addictions in very much the same way that we treat substance addictions, and we believe to the be the first company in the world to be conducting research [into the treatment of] behavioural addictions,” he added.

The biotech executive told LBC’s Tom Swarbrick that the Awakn team are in the “research phase” of their development of therapeutics to treat behavioural addictions.

Here’s how the treatment would work, according to Anthony Tennyson:

The psychedelic drugs would disrupt the brain circuits that house the behaviours that drive the addiction.

In the space that this disruption provides, Awakn can come in with “psychotherapy” to enable patients to gain a greater understanding of why they became addicted in the first place. In theory, the patient can then develop more dynamic and robust coping mechanisms to reduce the probability of relapsing into unhealthy patterns.

Tom Swarbrick - who has done an extensive amount of reporting in this space - summed up Awakn’s hypothesis: “[Awakn] are seeking to remedy the patterns that fire off in the brain that contribute to addictions through a behaviour. [The addiction] is creating a neural pathway that stimulates dopamine or serotonin and that means that people get locked into that behaviour and can’t get out.”

“That behaviour becomes a very ingrained pattern in a personality and ego, and breaking that is hard to do,” added Mr Tennyson.

Behavioural addictions encompass gambling disorder, internet gaming disorder, binge eating disorder, and compulsive sexual behaviour disorders’ like sex addiction or pornography addiction. They are notoriously tricky to keep under control and remedy, but Awakn think that they’ve unlocked the pathway to keeping behavioural addictions under wraps.

“People are getting too science-y about [treating behavioural addictions],” said Mr Tennyson.

The biotech CEO then explained that instead of overcomplicating the matter, the brain should simply be broken down into three elements.

Those three elements are the ‘memory and reward’ aspect located at the bottom of the brain, the ‘driver’ aspect located somewhere in the middle of the brain, and ‘the mind’ aspect which should be located at the front or top of the brain, and which should be steering the whole ship.

“In a balanced brain, the upper level maintains control over the rest of the brain,” said Mr Tennyson.

The problem lies in an addictive brain, where cognitive function loose control over the rest of the elements.

In an addictive brain the mere sight of the addictive source, be it a pub or fruit machine, can trigger a memory about a “future predicted reward.” In this case, the brain is locked out of calibration, and ‘the memory’ aspect becomes an “overactive driver.”

Awakn forecasts that these treatments will be available in its clinics as early as winter 2023.

“We have significant experience in using this approach to treat alcohol use disorder,” said Mr Tennyson.

“In a clinical trial we ran [for alcohol use disorder] we achieved 86% abstinence in the 6 months post-treatment, that stands up against 25% abstinence in the current standard of care. We are taking this same methodology which has been proven to work for alcohol use disorder and we are applying that to behavioural addictions,” he added.

Awakn Life Sciences has clinics in Bristol and London, the company also has a base in Oslo.