Ketamine As An Anti-Depressant?

By Paul Gaita 05/30/14

A recent study has shown that ketamine is a more effective anti-depressant than current medications.


Ketamine is a powerful anesthetic used in both human and veterinary surgical procedures to produce loss of consciousness. It’s also a popular recreational drug for its hallucinatory side effects, which in high doses is comparable to PCP or DXM.

Like those substances, ketamine can also produce an extreme state of dissociation that, depending on the user’s personality and brain chemistry, can mimic the symptoms of schizophrenia. This state, known in popular culture as “the K-hole,” is the key reason why ketamine has not been widely administered as an anti-depressant, despite studies that have shown it to be remarkably effective and fast-acting in that regard.

Doctors have instead prescribed memantine, a drug used in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. Both ketamine and memantine target NMDA receptor function in the brain, which has been associated in studies with depression, and memantine does not produce the same sort of psychotic symptoms as ketamine. Unfortunately, it also does not act as an antidepressant.

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences confirmed this observation by testing the antidepressant properties of both drugs on mice. Researchers learned that while both ketamine and memantine performed their key functions as NMDA receptor antagonists, memantine did not block NMDA receptors. Ketamine also triggered brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which promotes the growth of new neurons in the brain, particularly in regions of the brain associated with learning, memory, and higher thinking.

Memantine did not produce these same effects, which rendered it less effective in combating depression than ketamine. The study’s authors hoped that their research would contribute to the development of new antidepressants that would combine the best elements of both drugs: a fast-acting and potent medication without the debilitating side effects of ketamine.

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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.