Objective: The antioxidant N-acetylcysteine is being increasingly investigated as a therapeutic agent in the treatment of substance use disorders (SUDs). This study explored the efficacy of N-acetylcysteine in the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which frequently co-occurs with SUD and shares impaired prefrontal cortex regulation of basal ganglia circuitry, in particular at glutamate synapses in the nucleus accumbens.
Methods: Veterans with PTSD and SUD per DSM-IV criteria (N = 35) were randomly assigned to receive a double-blind, 8-week course of N-acetylcysteine (2,400 mg/d) or placebo plus cognitive-behavioral therapy for SUD (between March 2013 and April 2014). Primary outcome measures included PTSD symptoms (Clinician-Administered PTSD Scale, PTSD Checklist-Military) and craving (Visual Analog Scale). Substance use and depression were also assessed.
Results: Participants treated with N-acetylcysteine compared to placebo evidenced significant improvements in PTSD symptoms, craving, and depression (β values < -0.33; P values < .05). Substance use was low for both groups, and no significant between-group differences were observed. N-acetylcysteine was well tolerated, and retention was high.
Conclusions: This is the first randomized controlled trial to investigate N-acetylcysteine as a pharmacologic treatment for PTSD and SUD. Although preliminary, the findings provide initial support for the use of N-acetylcysteine in combination with psychotherapy among individuals with co-occurring PTSD and SUD.
Trial registration: ClinicalTrials.gov identifier: NCT02499029.
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