Doctors Interested in Treating Depression with Rave Drug Ketamine

By Victoria Kim 01/14/15

Researchers have found another ailment that can potentially be treated with the popular club drug.

Special K. Wiki Commons

The drug ketamine, also known as the club drug “Special K,” is gaining favor among clinicians and researchers for its ability to treat depression in a way that conventional antidepressants cannot.

More and more clinicians are prescribing ketamine off-label for their patients, since it has proved to be an effective treatment for depression, bipolar disorder, and suicidal behavior.

Ketamine’s ability to lift depression in as little as two hours sets it apart from conventional antidepressants, which generally take weeks to take effect. This is particularly promising for suicide prevention, according to Carlos Zarate of the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health.

A 2013 study by James Murrough and a team at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City found that ketamine reduced depression 24 hours after treatment in 64% of patients who had tried three or more medications with unsuccessful results. The study, which involved 73 participants, is the largest trial of off-label ketamine so far.

“It blew the doors off what we thought we knew about depression treatment,” Murrough said. However, the drug’s long-term effects need to be studied before its use becomes widespread, he said.

Another study of 386 patients conducted by a company called Naurex out of Evanston, Ill., produced similar results. Its own ketamine-like drug, GLYX-13, successfully treated depression in about half of patients without hallucinatory side effects.

In 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a nasal spray containing a structural variant called esketamine to fast-track through the regulatory process. Johnson & Johnson, the company behind the nasal spray, conducted a 200-person study early this year and said the initial results “look very good.”

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