Over the past several years, ketamine has received a growing amount of media attention. As a treatment for depression, no other medication has shown this much promise since Prozac was discovered in the 1980s. Ketamine has been hailed as “miraculous,” and a “wonder drug,” alleviating depressive symptoms in up to 70% of patients…even those who failed to respond to depression treatment after depression treatment. What’s even more spectacular is the speed in which ketamine works—patients know whether ketamine will work for them after only 1-2 infusions.
There is no arguing that the antidepressant qualities of ketamine are beyond powerful. Ketamine infusions can alleviate depression, reduce or eliminate suicidal thoughts, reduce anxiety, prevent and treat PTSD, and treat the symptoms of bipolar disorder. In fact, ketamine is so powerful that several pharmaceutical companies have rushed to develop antidepressants modeled after the way ketamine works. Johnson & Johnson’s intranasal antidepressant, esketamine, could become FDA-approved for the treatment of depression as early as next month. But ketamine itself is not approved by the FDA for the treatment of depression—it is only approved as an analgesic and anesthetic. For this and other reasons, ketamine infusions remain a controversial depression treatment, even though mounds of research indicate the drug is a game changer.
The story of how the antidepressant qualities of ketamine were discovered is an interesting one. In the 1990s, two researchers, Dennis Charney and John Krystal, were studying the brain’s glutamate system. Charney was interested in the role of the glutamate system in depression; Krystal was interested in the role of the glutamate system in schizophrenia. The researchers performed a single-dose ketamine study. Normally, the effects of ketamine wear off after about two hours. However, because ketamine was, at the time, abused recreationally as the street drug ’Special K,’ Charney and Krystal decided to play it safe and monitor study participants for 72 hours post-dosing.
That is when they became aware of ketamine’s antidepressant effects.
Within 4 hours, patients began to claim that they were better. Their depressive symptoms were reduced in a matter of hours. This was shocking, as, at that time, the best antidepressants took weeks—if not months—to alleviate symptoms. Charney and Krystal published their findings in 2000.
The published results didn’t receive much attention…at first. The truth is that, amazing findings or not, ketamine was a cheap, generic drug that no pharmaceutical company was willing to invest millions of dollars into researching. But over the years, more and more studies were performed. Each study indicated the same thing: ketamine was a miraculous, fast-acting antidepressant. In 2009, Big Pharma picked up on the trend and several companies started developing ketamine-like medications.
However, at the same time, ketamine was legal and it could save lives…but it was not available to those who were suffering. Ketamine clinics began to open their doors, offering infusions off-label to those whose symptoms were not relieved by traditional depression treatments. While some clinics operate in a gray area of ethics, making ketamine available to anyone willing to pay, most are practicing soundly, bringing hope to those who need it the most.
Today, as we stand on the brink of esketamine’s approval, researchers continue to explore the wide-reaching benefits of ketamine. Could it reduce the country’s ever-growing suicide rate? Could it treat addiction or alcoholism? Could it prevent first responders and military personnel from developing PTSD? What other unexplored drugs house the potential to treat depression as effectively, if not more effectively, than ketamine?
We can’t answer these questions. But we can say that, at our ketamine clinics, we have seen the impact that infusions can have on the lives of those who are suffering in the darkness of depression. We have seen patients reclaim their lives, return to work, become engaged members of their families and active members of their communities. If you or a loved one is suffering and doesn’t know where else to turn for hope, we encourage you to contact our clinic. Whether ketamine is right for you or not, we can help answer questions and point you in the direction of health and wellbeing.