Ketamine really is the drug with more surprises up its sleeve than any other. If you think K is something crusties, first year students and troubled emos stick up their hooters so they can have a couple of hours of terrifying introspection sat up against an unlit fireplace at a house party, you'd be right. But it's so much more than that. Oxford University recognises that, too.
Ketamine is an anaesthetic drug mainly used on horses as a tranquiliser. It is also, due to its low price, used in poorer countries as a painkiller and a form of general anaesthetic. And now, according to a recent study at Oxford University, it can also be used to treat depression. Forty-two percent of those treated with ketamine are said to have responded well to it. These are also people whose depression is considered to be treatment-resistant, so the results are being hailed as a triumph and a breakthrough by those conducting the study.
Dr Rupert McShane, consultant psychiatrist at Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust and leader of the study, was pleased with the results, saying: "I have seen ketamine work where nothing has helped before."
He wanted to make sure, however, that it wasn't to be seen in too positive a light, following up by stating: "Ketamine is a drug, not a miracle. Maintaining the benefit is a challenge."
In terms of recreational legality, ketamine is, along with speed and weed, a class B drug. However, it is licensed as an anaesthetic medicine, and is thus available to be used in trials and studies such as this, and can also be prescribed by any doctor. Pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson are even jumping on the ketty bandwagon, and are currently trialling a ketamine nasal spray for depression.
WATCH: The Experimental Ketamine Cure for Depression
Patients in the study will have had the drug intravenously administered for 40 minutes twice a week. "Getting the right level of oversight is important," says McShane. "Not enough, and we risk overuse and an inevitable backlash; too much, and we leave patients in misery unnecessarily."
Ketamine has properties which affect the way in which the brain perceives memory and emotion. It's because of this that it's also being used to help heavy drinkers cut down on their alcohol intake. By removing some of the positive associations with alcohol from their memories via the ketamine, the desire to drink would be drastically lessened, or so they hope. A similar effect could take place in the brain of a depressed patient.
It's still too early in the day to know whether the ketamine can be a truly effective battler of depression, but, as Professor Allan Young of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, says, "There are still significant gaps in our knowledge about dosage levels, treatment protocols and the effectiveness and safety of long term use.
"Before ketamine can be recommended for use in clinical practice, extensive research is required to understand how to optimally use ketamine for treating depression."
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