The Past, Present and Future of Using Ketamine to Treat Depression

Source: Raleigh McElvery, Smithsonian Magazine

Since then, ketamine’s antidepressant potential has captivated researchers, pharmaceutical companies and patients alike. As the pool of clinical and real-world data continues to grow, the treatment appears to be special in more ways than one. While traditional antidepressants take weeks to kick in, even the sickest patients may begin to respond to ketamine as early as a few hours after administration. Researchers also suspect it could help build a more resilient brain in the long-term. However, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration classifies ketamine as a Schedule III drug, which means it has a moderate to low potential for physical and psychological dependence (less so than Schedule II drugs such as cocaine, but more so than Schedule IV drugs such as Xanax).

Beyond ketamine’s abuse potential, it can cause other extreme side effects, including a short-lived state of altered consciousness immediately following treatment. This is known medically as a dissociative episode and colloquially as the “K-hole” if the dose is high enough.

Despite warranted trepidation, many herald the discovery of ketamine’s rapid antidepressant effects as the most significant psychiatric development in recent decades—one that is overturning what we thought we knew about the neurobiology of depression. Now, scientists are leveraging the knowledge they’ve gained to reduce ketamine’s less desirable effects, and even inform other unconventional depression treatments, such as the psychedelic psilocybin. 

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