Male doctor or anesthetist
December 11, 2014

Nitrous Oxide No Laughing Matter When It Comes To Depression

Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

People with depression who have tried many different treatments without success may have one more option in the near future: laughing gas.

According to new research published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, individuals with treatment-resistant depression show signs of improvement a full day after being administered a dose of laughing gas, more properly known as nitrous oxide.

The study team pointed out that they only checked on participants twice over a 24-hour period and their results are preliminary for now.

“Our findings need to be replicated, but we think this is a good starting point, and we believe therapy with nitrous oxide eventually could help many people with depression,” said study author Dr. Peter Nagele, assistant professor of anesthesiology at the University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

The researcher said the use of laughing gas to treat depression is attractive because of its limited side effects, which include nausea and vomiting. These effects are short-lived and the ephemeral nature of effects is why the scientists say they are confident that relief from symptoms 24 hours later is not a direct effect of nitrous oxide. The study team also noted that anecdotal evidence from the study supports the idea that improvements could last much longer.

In the study, participants were given two treatments, but neither the volunteers nor the scientists knew the order that those doses were given. In one study trial, people were given a gas blend that was one-half oxygen and one-half nitrous oxide, which is the same combination that dentists use on their patients receiving dental care.

In another study trial, participants were given a placebo of half oxygen and half nitrogen – the two primary gases in air.

Two hours after each trial session, participants were interviewed on the seriousness of their depression symptoms, such as sadness, suicidal thoughts and anxiety. The next day all participants were interviewed again and seven patients in the nitrous group said they had slight improvement in their symptoms, and a different seven reported substantial improvement. Three patients said their symptoms had almost totally vanished. None of the patients said their symptoms deteriorated after their nitrous oxide treatment.

In the placebo group, one patient said they symptoms had worsened the next day, five said they felt slight improvements and two said that they felt much better.

“When they received nitrous oxide, many of the patients reported a rapid and significant improvement,” said study author Dr. Charles R. Conway, associate professor of psychiatry at WUStL. “Although some patients also reported feeling better after breathing the placebo gas, it was clear that the overall pattern observed was that nitrous oxide improved depression above and beyond the placebo. Most patients who improved reported that they felt better only two hours after treatment with nitrous oxide. That compares with at least two weeks for typical oral antidepressants to exert their beneficial, antidepressant effects.”

The study team noted that other treatments like cognitive therapy or antidepressants take weeks or months to start kicking in.

“If our findings can be replicated, a fast-acting drug like this might be particularly useful in patients with severe depression who may be at risk for suicide and who need help right away,” said study author Dr. Charles F. Zorumski, a professor of psychiatry at the university. “Or perhaps the drug could be used to relieve symptoms temporarily until more conventional treatments begin to work.”

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