Drug companies are testing ketamine to treat severe depression

Disassociate and heal. It’s the ketamine way.
Disassociate and heal. It’s the ketamine way.
Image: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
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The evidence that ketamine can curb the symptoms of severe depression is starting to pile up. New findings on the clinical efficacy of the well-known party drug may pave the way for it to move out of the club and into the doctor’s office.

The researchers conducted their work with 68 study participants who were identified as depressed and at risk of committing suicide. The group was randomly split into two, with half taking ketamine and half taking a ketamine placebo via nasal spray, twice a week for four weeks. After each ketamine (or placebo) administration, the researchers waited for about four hours, then assessed the patient on the Montgomery-Åsberg Depression Rating Scale to track any change in the person’s depressive state. The researchers also used the Suicide Ideation and Behavior Assessment (which draws on both patient input and clinician observation) to determine any change in suicide risk. They found that the group taking ketamine showed pronounced improvement in depressive symptoms, and less suicidal thinking.

The findings were published this week (April 16) in the American Journal of Psychiatry. It was first published study of ketamine as a depression treatment tool undertaken by a drug company. The research was part of a collaboration between the Yale School of Medicine and Janssen Research and Development, a pharmaceutical subsidiary of Johnson and Johnson. The findings back up recent work by Columbia University researchers, who published similar results in December 2017.

In the recent study, ketamine didn’t eliminate depression. The researchers reported that after about 25 days the effects of the drug leveled out. However, it did provide temporary and, most importantly, rapid relief. For that reason, the study posits that ketamine could one day be used to offer rapid treatment for people who are severely depressed. Considering that nearly all available antidepressants take days to have an effect, this could mean ketamine has a real future filling a current gap in depression treatment.

Ketamine is widely known as a club drug, typically bought in the form of a white, crystal-like, snortable powder. Its effects are akin to other dissociative drugs, which have been described as giving the feeling of a separation between mind and body.

The study notes that more research is needed to analyze the potential for dependence and substance abuse of the drug before can be approved for use as a depression treatment. In addition, to date, clinical ketamine trials have been small, and the researchers note that future studies will need to include a larger pool of participants to validate these early findings.