Could Ketamine lead to a cure for Depression?

The notorious club drug is shocking scientists with its ability to treat severe depression claims Kelly Tatera in The Science Explorer recently. Ketamine, a popular psychedelic club drug known on the streets as “Special K,” may lead scientists straight to a miracle cure for treating severe depression.

Dennis Hartman, a Seattle business executive, lived a life of chronic depression: he’d endured 25 years of therapy and tried 18 antidepressants and mood stabilizers, but nothing seemed to help. He told the Washington Post that the clinical trial at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in Bethesda was going to be his last attempt at salvation — and the trial ended up changing his life.

“My life will always be divided into the time before that first infusion and the time after. That sense of suffering and pain draining away. I was bewildered by the absence of pain.” Hartman told the Washington Post’s Sara Solovitch.

For 40 minutes, Hartman had ketamine delivered through his system via an IV drip, and he says after several hours passed, it suddenly occurred to him that all of his thoughts of suicide were gone. Hartman isn’t alone in his frustrating experience with typical antidepressant drugs — in fact, most selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) take three to eight weeks to start having any effect, and there’s no guarantee that the patient will even respond to the drug.

Ketamine has been accepted as a quick and easy anesthetic in emergency rooms, but over the past decade, researchers have been honing in on its potential as a treatment for mental health issues in cases where typical pharmaceutical medications fail.

“The momentum behind the drug has now reached the American Psychiatric Association, which, according to members of a ketamine task force, seems headed toward a tacit endorsement of the drug for treatment-resistant depression. Experts are calling it the most significant advance in mental health in more than half a century.” – Solovitch reports. 

Some of the most prestigious academic medical centers across the US are opting to treat patients with ketamine, including Yale University, the Mayo Clinic, the University of California at San Diego, and the Cleveland Clinic. As in Hartman’s case, the drug is administered by a single IV infusion at doses that are smaller than those used for anesthetic purposes.

Researchers are still working to figure out exactly how ketamine works so efficiently to treat depression, but a 2010 study published in Science suggests that it works by blocking proteins called NMDA receptors. When these proteins are blocked, the brain increases production of the synaptic signalling proteins in the prefrontal cortex, which is the region that regulates complex emotional and behavioral functioning.

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The findings are certainly exciting, but it’s important to note that, just like SSRIs, ketamine isn’t the right treatment for everyone. In the end, it is a hallucinogenic drug, and some patients find the effects to be uncomfortable. Also, ketamine is by no means a “cure” to depression — patients must keep receiving the necessary doses to treat the depressive symptoms.

Despite the fact that many doctors and researchers are raving about the potential of ketamine as an antidepressant, other scientists are in opposition to the idea. A recent review of a number of the significant ketamine studies found that the sample sizes were limited and that nearly all of them had short-term follow-ups. That means there’s still a lot to learn about the drug’s potential as an antidepressant and the long-term effects it may have on a patient.

However, ketamine has proved to be highly effective for certain individuals, so it will be interesting to see how further research unravels. It would certainly be remarkable for a notorious club drug to evolve as the biggest breakthrough treatment for depression in decades.