Ketamine: A New Approach to the Treatment of Depression?

Pharmaceutical research treating depression has long been targeted at serotonin levels in the brain.   Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, a chemical within the brain that transmits signals from one part of the brain to another.  Researchers have posited that serotonin imbalances in the brain may be linked to depression, and a class of drugs, known as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) drugs like Prozac, Celexa, and Zoloft - work by altering the balance of serotonin in the brain.  Although these drugs can be effective at treating depression, they can take more than two months to begin working, and they don’t work for everyone.

Fighting Chronic Depression with Ketamine

However, a new type of drug is offering real hope to those struggling with chronic depression.  Ketamine, an FDA-approved pain reliever, and a drug commonly used as a veterinary anesthetic, has proven successful in relieving even severe depression much faster than traditional SSRI therapy. Now, researchers are citing the drug’s ability to relieve even suicidal depression in a matter of hours.  Unlike SSRIs, which work with serotonin levels, ketamine is thought to affect the glutamate system within the brain, making the brain form new connections between brain cells.

Researchers caution that self-medication with ketamine is a not appropriate treatment for depression or any other illness.  The drug, which is also commonly called “Special K,” was a popular drug of abuse during the 1970s, and has regained popularity as a club drug.  Unsupervised use of the drug can cause serious side effects, including delirium, amnesia, depression, and long-term memory and cognitive difficulties.  Ketamine’s ability to produce a dissociative effect also made it popular as a date-rape drug.

Possible Side Effects of Ketamine

Unfortunately, even medically supervised ketamine therapy is not without its own disadvantages; patients receiving the drug have reported out-of-body experiences, hallucinations, and difficulty with memory.  Long-term use of the drug also poses some significant physical and mental health risks.

For these reasons, researchers are now turning to other drugs that, like ketamine, affect the glutamate system.  The National Institute of Health (NIH) is presently conducting studies into the impact of other drugs on the glutamate system, with the ultimate goal of identifying a chemical basis for a new class of antidepressant drugs.

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