Ketamine Is a 'Rapid Antidepressant'

Governments are starting to seriously look at the medical uses of 'recreational' drugs.

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Apr 2 2014, 11:00pm
Image: Wikimedia Commons

For the first time ever, researchers in the United Kingdom are exploring the possibility of using ketamine as a medicine in order to treat patients with severe forms of depression.

The move isn’t unprecedented—there have been several recent American clinical trials that have taken a look at the drug and several small clinics have been prescribing the drug off label—but it’s the first time the country has funded a medical study of the drug and is part of a larger trend to look at the medical uses of drugs that are most often used to get high, like ecstasy, acid, and weed

Like in recent American studies, ketamine proved useful for treating some patients whose previous depression treatments had failed. University of Oxford researchers report in the Journal of Psychopharmacology that the drug rapidly reversed depression, though most patients began feeling depressed again within a day or two. In about 30 percent of the patients, however, depression didn’t return for at least three weeks, and 15 percent of patients reported feeling benefits for as long as two months. 

Despite the fact that not all patients saw long-term benefits, the drug appears to be a viable option for the treatment of depression: The study’s 45 patients had exhausted most other forms of antidepressants and were candidates for electroconvulsive therapy, a treatment that’s still highly controversial and often comes with memory loss. Ketamine proved effective, at least in the short term, and patients showed no memory loss or cognitive decline.

We've seen remarkable changes in people who've had severe depression for many years that no other treatment has touched. It's very moving to witness. Patients often comment that that the flow of their thinking seems suddenly freer. For some, even a brief experience of response helps them to realize that they can get better and this gives hope,” said Rupert McShane, lead author of the study. “Ketamine is a promising new antidepressant which works in a different way to existing antidepressants.”

The study was the first to take a look at whether ketamine could be used as more than a one-off treatment, and in that aspect, too, it showed promise. McShane gave his patients between three and six infusions of ketamine over the course of three weeks. Of the 45 original patients, four are currently still using ketamine regularly and one no longer needs any type of treatment for depression.

It's not just notable that someone did a clinical trial with ketamine—it's also notable who funded it: The National Institute for Health Research, a government organization that is roughly equivalent to the United States' National Institutes of Health. The U.S. is following suit—the NIH is currently looking for patients to enroll in a similar trial.  

As I mentioned earlier, it’s exciting to see scientists taking a look at the potential therapeutic uses of recreational drugs (though ketamine is often used in hospitals as a painkiller or anesthetic). Instead of having blanket policies that say marijuana or acid or ecstasy are bad, we’re starting to see that, in controlled settings, they can be some of our best weapons against mental illness.