A Single, Low-Dose of Ketamine May Help Relieve Treatment-Resistant Depression

This longtime party drug is pulling people from the deepest depths of despair and bringing them back to life.

By Elizabeth Yuko, Ph.D.
March 4, 2020

When someone is diagnosed with depression, the treatment options are limited. Yes, some people have success with medication or different forms of talk and/or behavioral therapy, but others never find relief — no matter what they try. This is causing some people, including medical practitioners, to turn to less orthodox treatments, like the off-label use of ketamine. While there was concern over the possible negative side effects of taking the drug, new research conducted by the National Institute of Health (NIH) National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) shows the side effects are minor.

Ketamine is a drug that blocks sensory perception, and has several different uses, including for anesthesia and burn therapy. But you may be most familiar with it as the club drug, “Special K.” Lately, though, ketamine has been getting attention as a possible treatment for depression. This new research from the NIH and NIMH found that a single, low-dose intravenous ketamine infusion was effective in treating depression, and came with only mild side effects — the most common of which were feeling strange or “loopy.”

“Most side effects peaked within an hour of ketamine administration and were gone within two hours. We did not see any serious, drug-related adverse events or increased ketamine cravings with a single-administration,” Elia Acevedo-Diaz, M.D., a researcher at the Section on the Neurobiology and Treatment of Mood Disorders, part of the NIMH Intramural Research Program (IRP), said in a statement.

This study, which was published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, used data from 163 patients with major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder, along with 25 healthy cohorts who participated in a placebo-controlled clinical trial conducted at the NIH Clinical Center over the course of 13 years. The researchers evaluated 120 possible side effects, and found that 34 were associated with the low-dose ketamine treatment. The most common side effects — experienced by more than half of the participants — were feeling strange, weird, bizarre, spacey, woozy and loopy. Experiencing dissociation, a sense of floating, visual distortions, difficulty speaking, and numbness, were also common adverse reactions. However, none of the aftereffects lasted more than four hours.

In 2019, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a form of ketamine called esketamine, which can be administered to adults with treatment-resistant depression in a certified doctor’s office or clinic. Meanwhile, the researchers from the NIMH are planning a clinical trial of a version of ketamine that is metabolized (instead of taken intravenously) that has shown some promise in pre-clinical studies.

About the writer:

Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is a bioethicist and writer as well as an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham University. She has written for print and online publications, including The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe AtlanticRolling StoneCNNFodor’sLifehackerReader’s Digest and Playboy.


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This site is for educational purposes and not a substitute for professional medical care by a doctor or otherwise qualified medical professional. The information provided by Outlier Magazine is on the understanding that it does not constitute medical or other professional advice or services.

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