A key to the success was family support of the heroin abusers' use of naltrexone, which, while it blocks the "high" associated with heroin use, is prescribed rarely because few patients who abuse heroine have been willing to take it, said William Fals-Stewart, Ph.D., lead researcher on the study. A clinical psychologist, he is a senior research scientist in UB's Research Institute on Addictions and research associate professor in the Department of Psychology in the UB College of Arts and Sciences. His co-investigator was Timothy J. O'Farrell, Ph.D., of Harvard Medical School and Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System in Brockton, Mass.
The study was the first to combine family counseling and naltrexone as a treatment for heroin dependence. Heroin abuse is the primary drug problem of people entering treatment programs in the U.S. Results of the National Institute on Drug Abuse-funded study were reported in the August issue of Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.
The research involved 124 men entering treatment for heroin dependence who were then assigned to one of two treatment methods: behavioral family counseling plus use of naltrexone or individual-based treatment plus naltrexone. One of the criteria for participating in the program was that participants live with a family member. Participants in the study averaged 32 years of age, 13 years of education and were predominately white.
Fals-Stewart explained that naltrexone is a medication that blocks the "high" created by taking heroin and other opiates. It makes using these drugs less enjoyable and, in turn, reduces their use. In behavioral family counseling, a family member observed the patient taking the medication; in individual-based treatment, the patient was not observed taking the medication.