Another Recreational Drug May Have A New Legitimate Medical Use

Breakfast of champions.

Ketamine is an NMDA receptor antagonist sometimes used as an anesthetic during procedures which don’t require a muscle relaxant. It’s also known as “Special K”, a club drug and date rape drug. Now researchers at the NeuroPsychiatric Center in Houston, Texas, are studying another use for Ketamine: a depression treatment with immediate effects and a different mechanism of action than common anti-depressants.

Most anti-depressants work by allowing serotonin in the brain to be used more times than usual, boosting the mood-elevating effects of the body’s regular amount of the neurotransmitter. (Yes, this is a very simplified explanation.) These drugs may also help the brain form new connections, according to some recent research. It takes at least a few weeks, sometimes months, before a patient feels the effects, and the drugs don’t work for as many as 40% of patients. Ketamine, on the other hand, can also stimulate neurons to create new connections, but these connections were found to happen within hours, not weeks, in a study of rats conducted by Ron Duman at Yale. Luckiest rats ever.

The double blind study isn’t complete yet, but preliminary results are promising. Test subjects receive either Ketamine or a sedative, although the effects of the Ketamine seem to be so obvious that trying to make the study double blind is mostly useless. One test subject described her experience: “No more fogginess. No more heaviness. I feel like I’m a clean slate right now.” Then she went to a Phish concert, we would assume.

If it works, Ketamine could be used to break patients out of a severe depressive episode immediately when waiting weeks for other drugs to take effect isn’t an option. But let’s not forget what’s truly important: finding out how we can become test subjects, too.

[Sources: NPR and EMPR; Image credit: Tina Rencelj /]