Yet for decades, physicians and psychiatrists have been doling out the same treatments to people with depression, even though research suggests they don’t work that well for everyone. These treatments typically include a combination of talk therapy and antidepressant medication — two approaches that, especially when used in combination, can work wonders for some, but leave others without any benefit.
Scientists who think it’s time for a new tactic have found hope in recent months in psychedelics like ayahuasca and magic mushrooms — drugs which appear to reduce depressive symptoms by increasing the connectivity among previously segregated parts of the brain. So it shouldn’t come as a complete surprise that they’re also exploring the depression-reducing qualities of the quasi-psychedelic drug ketamine as well.
A new study is the first of its kind to show that ketamine, which is illegal recreationally but known for its out-of-body effects and available legally as a pain reliever, appears to provide swift and powerful relief to people suffering from some of the hardest-to-treat forms of depression.
Dozens of previous studies undertaken over the last decade have hinted at this possibility, with some researchers going so far as to describe ketamine as “arguably the most important discovery in half a century.” Several pharmaceutical companies, including Allergan, are exploring the idea of a ketamine-like drug as an antidepressant as well.
But this paper is the first large-scale study to put ketamine’s effectiveness to the test.
For their study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers at the University of California, San Diego turned to a massive FDA database with records from more than 8 million patients. Using this wealth of data, the researchers homed in on patients who’d been given ketamine as a treatment for their chronic pain. Then they looked at their depression symptoms and compared them with the depression symptoms in people who received other pain medications.
Their findings were striking. The patients who took ketamine reported symptoms of depression 50% less frequently than patients given any other combination of drugs for pain.
“This reduction in depression is specific to ketamine and is known to be much more rapid than current antidepressants,” the researchers write in their paper. They write that this makes their observations “very promising” for people with serious depression or thoughts of suicide.
“These patients cannot afford to wait up to six weeks for reductions in their depressive symptoms,” they add.
Beyond a reduction in their symptoms of depression, the patients on ketamine also reported significantly less pain than those given the other drugs. They were also less likely to experience the unpleasant side-effects that frequently come with other pain medications like constipation, vomiting, and nausea.
Still, like any drug, the ketamine had its own negative side effects, including kidney failure and low blood pressure. For these reasons and others, there’s still a lot of research that’s needed before psychedelic drugs start to be prescribed for clinical use. But if this study is any indication, there are many reasons to remain hopeful.
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