The New, Cutting-Edge Depression Treatment Is… Ketamine?

Shooting yourself full of animal tranquilizers is generally, and rightly, viewed as a bad idea. And ketamine is not a drug to fool around with. But despite that, it’s becoming a common treatment for depression.

First, just so we’re clear here, you should not use ketamine without medical supervision, and definitely not recreationally. That is both illegal and stupid, and if one doesn’t bite you, the other will. That said, ketamine is actually legal, if it’s administered by a doctor, and the evidence increasingly indicates it’s effective as a treatment for depression, as the New York Times documents:

“Never ever ever before have I felt like that,” said Maggie, 53, who lives in Orange County, Calif., and spoke on the condition that her full name not be used because of the stigma associated with depression. “I woke up the next morning, and I didn’t take an antidepressant for the first time in 20 years.”

This is crucial because it’s estimated current antidepressants only work for about half of depression sufferers and their effectiveness varies widely. But why does it even work?

Well, uh, good question, actually. The theory is that ketamine blocks N-methyl-D-aspartate, or NMDA, which interacts with the neurotransmitter glutamate. Beyond that, basically people shrug and say “Dunno, but it works.” To be fair, though, that’s pretty much the explanation we apply to treatments like, say, blasting people brains with electricity.

That said, there are concerns about the “ketamine clinics” popping up to fill in the gap; they aren’t covered by insurance; charge up to $1000 per dose; often require regular, frequent dosage; and like any grey market, there may be opportunists more interested in the cash than the safety of patients. But until there’s a better alternative on the market, quite a few depression sufferers might simply be too desperate to care.