Party Drug Ketamine Found to Relieve Depression and Help Control Emotions

Ketamine could offer a fast and effective treatment for people with depression, even those who have failed to respond to current therapy options. A new medical review published this month adds to the growing evidence that the drug could be used in a clinical setting.

The review, published in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry, analyzed 47 studies on ketamine as a treatment for depression. The paper outlined specific ways in which ketamine affected the brains of depression patients.

Ketamine is a drug that can relieve pain and cause feelings of relaxation. It is generally used as an anesthetic in medical setting, but it is also abused as a party drug. Recreational users typically seek a sensation described as being similar to an out-of-body experience. 

A New Drug for Depression

03_05_ketamine Ketamine could double as a depression treatment. NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images

Despite its popularity at parties, ketamine has been the subject of numerous clinical studies for its potential to treat depression. Data have been mounting in its favor, and now a team at Harvard Medical School has reviewed the evidence thus far. 

The authors found that many patients given ketamine displayed measurable positive changes in brain activity in areas associated with the ability to process and control emotions, Business Insider reported.

Those changes include activation of the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex—connected to both emotions and cognition—as observed by neuroimaging. The activation was directly associated with improvement of depression symptoms in as little as 24 hours after patients received a single intravenous subanesthetic ketamine dose.

The drug also enhanced how the brain responded to positive emotions, a change indicated by increased connectivity in the right-hemisphere caudate. That enhancement helped relieve symptoms of depression, possibly because of this region's connection to the brain's reward system. 

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Ketamine also appears to decrease the ability to self-monitor, the report noted. This decrease may cause “emotional blunting,” which could help increase reward processing—and, in turn, happiness.

How Does Ketamine Work? 

Although the review did not describe exactly how ketamine produces its antidepressant effect, the authors noted that the effect may be indirect. Past research found that ketamine affects several receptors in the brain, such as opioid receptors, adrenegic receptors and serotinin receptors. The review concluded that the side effects of ketamine's effect on those receptors may be the root cause of its antidepressant response. However, more research is needed to confirm this. 

Related: Are Nice People More Likely to Be Depressed?

The recent review is the latest scientific publication to suggest that this commonly used (and abused) drug could be an extremely helpful depression treatment.

Depression is a mental health condition characterized by prolonged feelings of extreme sadness and anxiety. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in every six adults will deal with depression at some point in their lives.

Though the results sound exciting, ketamine is not without its side effects. For example, an estimated 40 percent of users will experience some type of short-term effect of ketamine when administered in a hospital setting: It could be delirium, dizziness, hallucinations, nightmares or nausea and vomiting. There is currently no long-term need for ketamine use, but those who abuse the drug by taking it chronically may actually experience increased depression, or have memory and vision problems. 

Although there are a number of treatments for this condition, not everyone is responsive to them. Ketamine may offer a useful alternative, but more research is necessary in order to better understand how ketamine affects depression patients before it is widely used for that purpose.

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