Ketamine-Based Drugs Could Soon Be Used for Depression Treatment

By McCarton Ackerman 12/12/14

The potential to treat patients diagnosed with depression is bound to spark heated debate over the popular club drug's medical use.

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Ketamine is best known as a popular club drug, but a recent potential breakthrough has sparked debate over whether it could be an effective treatment for depression.

The drug, widely known as Special K, has been successfully used in several clinical trials to treat depression in people who haven’t been helped with traditional methods. However, psychiatrists are still not convinced that it’s been studied enough to be tested outside of clinical trials. Some pharmaceutical companies are working around this by creating drugs that work like ketamine, but without the euphoric, out-of-body experiences commonly associated with it.

A privately held company known as Naurex announced last week that their ketamine-based drug called GLYX-13 didn’t have any of the out-of-body effects of ketamine, but was still successful in reducing depression for half of the patients tested. The drug is given intravenously either weekly or bi-monthly, but Naurex is also working on an oral version of the drug. A Phase 3 trial has already been planned for next year for GLYX-13 and the company hopes to receive approval from the Food and Drug Administration by 2019.

“It’s definitely the most promising compound in the depression space in terms of effect and durability,” said Harry M. Tracy, the publisher of the newsletter NeuroPerspective.

Doctors are allowed to use ketamine off-label to treat depression because it’s long been used as an anesthesia. The treatment costs $300-1,000 per session and is rarely covered by insurance, but some have sworn it’s the only thing that has helped them.

“Never ever ever before have I felt like that,” said Maggie, 53, who lives in Orange County, Calif. “I woke up the next morning, and I didn’t take an antidepressant for the first time in 20 years.”

A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that ketamine successfully targeted NMDA receptor functions in the brain, which are associated with depression. It also triggered brain derived neutotrophic factor (BDNF), which promotes the growth of new neurons in the brain that are associated with memory and higher thinking.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.