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March 28, 2017

Party drug Ketamine could be the next big breakthrough in treating depression

Originally marketed as an anesthetic and often used recreationally, a drug known to produce out-of-body experiences and hallucinations is gaining support among scientists for the treatment of people suffering from depression, according to a variety of recently-published reports.

Ketamine, which was first introduced in the 1960s, is frequently used by veterinarians but often is given to human emergency room patients as a sedative or pain reliever, according to the CBC. Also called “Special K,” the substance is also often used illegally but is nonetheless considered an essential medicine by the World Health Organization.

Now, doctors from around the world have increasingly been touting ketamine’s benefits in the treatment of patients suffering from severe depression, and one doctor has even gone so far as to call it “the biggest breakthrough since the introduction of anti-depressants.”

That doctor, Dr. Pierre Blier from the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre, has been studying the use of ketamine as a treatment for depression since at least 2015, according to the Toronto Globe and Mail, and recently concluded an 18-month clinical trial that had promising outcomes.

“We've seen the rapid antidepressant effect in treatment-resistant patients,” Dr. Blier said during a recent interview with the CBC. “But what is striking is that we also saw a very important effect in decreasing or completely making the suicidal ideation disappear. And what we unveiled in our research is that the anti-suicide ideation effect is independent of the antidepressant effect.”

Ketamine could be commercially available by 2019

More than half of the patients treated during his team’s trial reported reduced depression-related symptoms after receiving ketamine, but even those who did not show such a response wound up being less likely to want to kill themselves, Dr. Blier added during the CBC interview.

According to the Globe and Mail, his study involved a total of 34 patients, and the majority said that using ketamine helped them, even though they had tried an average of six other medications for their depression with no prior success. Nine-tenths reported a decrease in suicidal thoughts.

Dr. Blier is not the only one experimenting with ketamine as an anti-depressant, according to an NPR report published earlier this month – Yale University psychiatry professor Gerard Sanacora has treated hundreds of patients suffering from severe depression using low doses of the drug.

Sanacora told NPR that doctors often ask him how he could offer the potentially dangerous drug to his patients, without knowing the potential long-term risks. His response? “If you have patients that are likely to seriously injure themselves or kill themselves within a short period of time, and they've tried the standard treatments, how do you not offer this treatment?”

Based on various media reports, ketamine treatment is currently offered by dozens of clinics in both the US and Canada, and Sanacora claimed that more than 3,000 patients have been treated with the drug thus far. Dr. Blier is reportedly in the process of researching both an intravenously administered and an intra-nasal version of the drug that could be commercially available in about two years.

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