Feeling depressed? Stressed out? Doctors at Yale say the quickest and most efficient form of relief could be a healthy dose of Special K – the horse tranquilizer, not the breakfast cereal.
Small amounts of the drug ketamine help heal and reinvigorate neural pathways between brain cells damaged by anxiety and depression, according to an article authored by two Yale psychiatry professors and published earlier this month in the journal Science. The researchers showed that combining small doses of ketamine with introduced positive memories could help rebuild neural pathways and help break the chain by which negative memories lead to depression.
The scientists, Ronald Duman and George Aghajanian, sound very enthusiastic about ketamine's anti-depressive potential. Duman calls it "the biggest breakthrough in depression research in a half century" in the article.
"I would say [ketamine's effect is] probably one of the most significant findings in the field of depression for 50 years," Duman told an audience of scientists during a presentation#! in April 2011. "I've been working in this field for a very long time and really nothing like this has come along in many, many years."
Ketamine, a "dissociative anesthetic," was first developed in 1965 and administered to U.S. troops during the Vietnam War. Veterinarians use it as a general anesthetic. In humans, it produces hallucinations and higher blood pressure in addition to dulling our senses (causing slurred speech and making it tough to get up from the couch). It's used to treat bipolar disorder and curb suicide.
It’s not the first instance in which experts have recognized medicinal benefits of popular street drugs and applied them chronic health conditions. For example, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, based in Santa Cruz, Calif., is working to get the Food and Drug Administration to approve the club drug MDMA as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. Measures to legalize recreational marijuana use are on the Novermber ballots in both Washington, Oregon and Colorado.
Duman's and Aghajanian's research builds on a discovery first made by Yale scientists in the 1990s during tests to explore the effects of ketamine on schizophrenia and alcoholism. Results from the first human clinical trial were published in 2000. Duman's and Aghajanian's latest review proves the regenerative potential of ketamine on the brain.
Antidepressants on the market today work by helping unblock the synaptic connections between brain cells damaged by depression and stress. The downside is that typical antidepressants can take "weeks or months" to take effect, which Duman calls "a major limitation, particularly for patients who are suicidal."
Ketamine, by comparison, gets results in two to four hours, even for people who are resistant to "typical" antidepressants, like Prozac. A single dose can sustain the positive effects for a week.
"It's a huge advance for the treatment and control of suicide," Duman said. "The problem is ketamine is not the perfect drug either. It's a street drug … it has side effects, it may have some toxic effects with repeated dosing."
"Now that we know what ketamine is doing we can start to really design and build better treatments that are safer and produce the same type of effects that can be used chronically."