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What is ketamine?

Ketamine is a schedule III dissociative anesthetic developed in 1963 to replace PCP and currently used in human anesthesia and veterinary medicine. Ketamine is manufactured as an injectable liquid for medical use but is evaporated into a powder for illicit. Ketamine can be injected, snorted, or swallowed. Ketamine is odorless, tasteless and easily dissolves in water. This drug can be very dangerous as it can cause amnesia and has been used in sexual assaults as a date rape drug. Other names for Ketamine include “special k” or “vitamin k” and it’s commonly found at clubs and raves. Ketamine causes visual distortions, hallucinations, loss of sense of time, euphoria, and impaired memory and attention span.

How can ketamine help with depression?

New research has recently been published in Science supporting the use of Ketamine in depression. Yale and National Institute of Mental Health researchers say that ketamine seems to cause a burst of new connections to form between nerve cells in parts of the brain involved in emotion and mood. Ron Duman, a psychiatrist and neurobiologist at Yale University, alongside other scientist began testing ketamine on mice exposed to stressors that cause human-like depression. The stressed mice lost connections in certain parts of the brain. But a dose of ketamine was able to “rapidly increase these connections and also to rapidly reverse the deficits that are caused by stress,” Duman says. The discovery, described in Science, should speed development of the first truly new depression drugs since the 1970s, the researchers say.

Why is this finding important to the treatment of depression?

Depression is a pretty tricky mood disorder that even with medication is hard to treat. People can suffer from depression for their whole lives while others only get depressed after a major life event has occurred like the death of a loved one or for women the birth of their child. Current depression medications only affect the levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. The problem with this is that Scientists are aware that it cannot be that simple and other things like damage to brain cells in key regions that control mood can be a cause and antidepressant drugs do not fix that problem.

That is where ketamine comes into the picture. The research found shows that Ketamine rapidly spurs the growth of new synapses, the connections between brain cells, and is associated with reversal of the atrophy caused by chronic stress.

Currently we have drugs on the market that tackle the low levels of serotonin and now we possibly have another drug that repairs the brain cells that control mood. Can you say breakthrough? I believe so but just like any other drug, we can’t ignore the obvious negative side effects that ketamine has. Ketamine produces a “high” and that’s why it’s a commonly abused drug. In order to provide a safe drug for people who suffer from depression researchers are working on developing one that has the same brain cell repairing effects are ketamine but do not produce the hallucinogen and euphoric effects.  Long-term ketamine use can cause several adverse effects. Mostly, long-term ketamine use has neurological effects including memory loss, depression, and neural dysfunction. Urinary tract problems are also common with long-term ketamine use. Long-term users can experience bladder incontinence, over activity, and even blood in the urine.

The research supporting Ketamine for depression is still in its infancy but I’m excited to see where this can go. If researchers can find a way to develop a similar drug that won’t cause a high and trigger abuse amongst its users then I think this will be a major game changer in the treatment of depression.


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