Can A Drug Prevent Depression?

By Paul Gaita 04/28/17

One neuroscientist is hard at work on a preventative drug inspired by ketamine's effect on depression.

Woman pouring prescription pills from a bottle and into her hand.

Work is currently underway to develop a drug that will serve as an alternative to traditional antidepressants by acting as a "resilience enhancer"—a sort of vaccine for the emotional and mental impact of stressful situations that in turn trigger depression in those susceptible to the condition.

The drug, inspired by the effect that ketamine has shown on depression and stress, would be administered prior to exposure to stress, and could help to significantly reduce and even built up resiliency to stress, depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Potentially, such "preventative psychopharmacology" could help individuals and even communities that undergo intense stress but currently lack access to, or funds for, traditional antidepressants.

The drug is the brainchild of neuroscientist Rebecca Brachman, who observed stress studies conducted with ketamine while pursuing her doctorate at Columbia University. In one such experiment, a group of mice was given an injection of the Schedule III anesthetic, while a second was not; both control groups were then subjected to a string of stress-inducing situations.

The group that received the injection displayed less fearful or stressful reactions, and interacted in a more social manner with each other than the control group that had not received the shots.

More importantly, the injection group continued to exhibit those behaviors for at least another month—long after the drug had left their systems.

Researchers have seen similar scenarios involving the use of ketamine in depressive patients. Studies conducted by the National Institutes of Health saw that 30-50% of the depressed patients who received the drug showed not only fewer symptoms, but continued to show them for a week after the drug was administered. For Brachman, such findings support her belief in the potential to create a drug that would effectively ward off stress and depression for long periods of time.

Brachman believes that certain countries or regions, where stressful situations are often part of everyday life, might benefit hugely from a drug such as hers. "Preventative interventions, especially if they give a long lasting protection, have a much higher likelihood of making it to underserved communities," she noted. "That's why when people go into Africa, they bring vaccines. It's easier to get governments to invest, and it's easier to administer if it only needs to be done once."

Should the drug come to pass, Brachman has envisioned similar medications that could be used to prevent addiction, bipolar disorder and a host of other mental and emotional issues. "It's a whole new field," she said. 

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.