The war on depression is getting mighty weird these days. Last week, scientists said psilocybin, the active ingredient in ‘magic’ mushrooms, could be useful in treating depression. This week? Beat the blues with ketamine! The drug—also known as ‘Special K’—can lift even suicidal depression in just a few hours, researchers say.
Ketamine is approved by the FDA as an anesthetic. It’s mainly used as a horse tranquilizer, though it can be used to sedate both people and other animals. It’s also used by people recreationally, and is capable of producing hallucinations. I had friends who got really into its use in college (between this study and the mushrooms business, my college friends should have been the least depressed people ever …). Mostly, the high seemed to invoke a lot of sitting around in a silent, dazed stupor and occasionally falling into ‘K-holes.’ It didn’t look like much fun.
But ketamine could be really beneficial for treating major depression, according to some doctors. It works much quicker than typical antidepressants, which take weeks or months to really make a difference. And it could work for people whom typical antidepressants haven’t helped. Why? Carlos Zarate, a brain researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health who is studying ketamine, told NPR that depression is like a leaky faucet in the brain.
There are different ways to stop the leak, he says. “You can go straight to the faucet and you can fix it,” he says. “Or you can go to the water plant and shut down the water plant. The end result will be the same.”
The current antidepressants act in a way that is like shutting down the water plant, Zarate says. It takes a long time for the water to stop flowing through the miles of pipes that eventually lead to the leaky faucet.
He thinks the reason is that these drugs act primarily on the brain chemicals serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine. Ketamine acts on a chemical called glutamate, which is much closer to the problem, Zarate says.
That’s nice, but ketamine can come with side effects that make antidepressants look like aspirin. These include urinary tract problems, hypertension, nausea, nightmares, memory problems and hallucinations. Zarate said because of troubling side effects, ketamine is unlikely to become a common depression treatment in and of itself. But understanding how ketamine works at treating depression could allow scientists to develop safer drugs that work in the same way.
A few of these drugs—scopolamine, which is used to prevent seasickness; a pill called riluzole—are already being tested on depression patients. Both of these drugs also affect the glutamate system, though researchers aren’t quite sure how. But one patient who took part in an NIH trial of scopolamine said:
“There’s no doubt in my mind [that] however it works or whatever receptors in the brain it works on, absolutely it has nailed exactly where my imbalance is.”
While it’s unlikely you’ll be filling a Special K or ‘shroom prescription any time soon (darn!), it’s pretty cool that researchers are using studies of these drugs to find new, safer and more effective ways to treat depression.
Photo: Taking Drugs Tumblr