Ketamine being considered as a potential new treatment for depression
04/02/2018 // David Williams // Views

In an effort to look for new forms of treatment for the seemingly worsening problem of depression and mental illness in the country, a group of researchers have come up with a potential solution: none other than ketamine, a known synthetic compound that is used as an anesthetic and analgesic drug. It has been described by some researchers as "the most important discovery in half a century," and now it's the subject of a comprehensive review in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry.

What's so special about ketamine? Although it has known medicinal uses, it's more commonly known as a party drug. And its reputation hasn't been built up for nothing. As of today, it's being studied by experts in laboratories for its potential as a quick form of depression treatment.

In people who have depression, access to an effective and fast-acting form of treatment is highly important. And yet this doesn't seem to be available for many people who are suffering from the potentially fatal disease.

According to Cristina Cusin, a psychiatrist from the Massachusetts General Hospital and an assistant professor at Harvard University, having depression is kind of like being a patient in the emergency room and being told that you need to wait for weeks before being treated for your urgent medical concern.

"Imagine arriving in the emergency room with severe pain from a kidney stone – pain so bad that you can't think. You'll do anything to make it go away," she explained. "And the doctors say, 'here's a drug that we've been using for 30 years, it works 5o to 60 percent of the time, and it should start to work in four to six weeks'. The sad reality is that, for people who are suicidal, "that's the best we can do."


And that mention of decades-long drugs that are still in use today? It's not a joke. Cusin's primary objective with the large new review that she co-authored is to help shed the light on the need for new treatments. She seems very optimistic about the findings in their paper, but at the same time, advises caution.

"We are just scratching the surface of the mechanisms of action with ketamine," she said. (Related: Getting high helps depression? Researchers suggest using ketamine, nitrous oxide for mental health).

Cusin and her co-authors aren't the first to look for potential new forms of treatment for people with depression. A report on the review that she co-authored noted that physicians and psychiatrists have been giving out pretty much the exact same drugs to people with depression for the past few decades, so a need for new alternatives is readily apparent.

Some of the unfortunate side effects of using antidepressants to treat depression are unexpected weight gain, reduced sexual drive, anxiety, and insomnia.

According to Cusin's team, ketamine could well be the most effective new solution that's available today. "The findings were unanticipated, especially the robustness and rapidity of benefit," they remarked in their study. "Ketamine appeared to directly target core depressive symptoms such as sad mood, suicidality, helplessness and worthlessness, rather than inducing a nonspecific mood-elevating effect."

What's needed now is additional research to find out what, if any, the long-term effects of using ketamine are.

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