Major depression affects more than 16 million American adults each year, nearly a third of whom don’t find relief from antidepressants and other traditional treatments. When depressionisn’t treated, it increases the chance of alcohol and drug dependence, as well as suicide.
The anesthetic ketamine could offer hope for people who don’t have other depression treatment options. The most recent research on ketamine, as well as a statement from experts on its use published in April, finds the drug works quickly, makes dramatic improvements in mood, and can work on people who haven’t gotten better with other depression treatments.
The evidence is so enticing that the FDA has granted two ketamine-based drugs breakthrough therapy status and fast-tracked them to market. Yet the studies done so far on ketamine have been small, and its availability is so far limited mainly to ketamine clinics and research studies.
Researchers still have a lot to learn about how well it treats depression and its long-term side effects, yet they say ketamine could be very helpful.
“It is potentially the most exciting development in my lifetime for the treatment of mood disorders, but there is still a way to go before this is ready for prime time,” says Gerard Sanacora, MD, PhD, director of the Depression Research Program at Yale University.
Some Frequently asked Questions about Ketamine
What is ketamine?
Ketamine is an anesthetic drug that blocks pain. It was first developed in the 1960s and was used to operate on soldiers during the Vietnam War. It’s also been used as an animal tranquilizer.In addition to dulling pain, ketamine makes users feel like they’re detached from their own body. This out-of-body sensation has made it a popular club or party drug, and it goes by nicknames like “Special K.”In 2000, researchers started studying ketamine as a treatment for depression. Over the years, they’ve discovered it improves mood much faster than traditional antidepressant drugs, and it works when some of these drugs have failed.
What is ketamine used to treat?
Ketamine is FDA-approved as an anesthetic for surgery and diagnostic procedures. It’s also used to treat depression, suicidal thoughts, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), other mood disorders, and nerve-related pain.
Where can you get ketamine?
You can get it at a ketamine clinic. There are more than 35 clinics around the country! Ketamine is also given experimentally in clinical trials.
How is it given?
Usually, ketamine is given as an IV into a vein, which is the quickest route for the medicine to get to the brain. Most people start with about six doses over a period of 1 to 2 weeks, and then get booster IVs once every 3 to 5 weeks. You may need to continue treatments for a year or more to see long-term results.
How does it work?
Researchers don’t know exactly how ketamine works to treat depression, but they have some ideas. Unlike antidepressants, which work by shifting the balance of brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine, ketamine is thought to change the way brain cells communicate with each other. “If you think of it in terms of a computer, what ketamine does is a hardware fix — not like antidepressants, which are like a software fix,” says Glen Brooks, MD, an anesthesiologist and medical director of NY Ketamine Infusions.
Ketamine blocks a type of receptor in the brain, known as NMDA, thought to play a role in depression. Recent studies find that ketamine can have long-lasting effects on depression, even though the drug only stays in the body a short time.
Ketamine also acts on other brain receptors — like opioid receptors, which affect pain and depression. “I think it is the ability of ketamine to not just hit one target like NMDA, but also to hit other receptors that create its unique effect,” says Ruben Abagyan, PhD, a professor at the UC San Diego Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences who has studied the use of ketamine for depression.
How well does it work?
How much does it cost?
The price can vary based on the doctor and location. Generally, each IV costs $400 to $800. Insurance often doesn’t cover the cost.
What should people consider before they try ketamine?
There are no guidelines on treating depression with ketamine. But in March, the American Psychiatric Association published a consensus statement, an analysis of the issue by a group of experts that helps further our understanding.for doctors and patients, which Sanacora co-authored.
Some advice from the statement:
- Make sure your doctor asks about your depression symptoms, treatment history, other medical conditions, and whether you’ve had any problems with substance abuse before starting you on ketamine. Knowing your health history will help ensure that the benefits of this treatment outweigh the risks.
- The doctor should check your vital signs — including blood pressure, heart rate, and oxygen levels — before and after treatment.
- While you get the IV, medical staff at the clinic should monitor you for any physical and mental effects from the drug. “The facility should have a clear operating procedure on how to manage things if there is a problem,” Sanacora says.