Party Drug Ketamine May Be the Next Big Antidepressant

In the quest to treat depression, one of the most common mental illnesses, doctors and researchers have turned their attention anew on an old pharmaceutical and party drug—ketamine.

Ketamine has been commonly used in medicine for years for its sedative and pain killing effects. Some ravers, too, know the drug well as called “Special K,” which is taken at parties for its hallucinatory effects and to induce the “K-hole,” an intense out-of-body experience. Recently, though, psychiatrists experimented with off-label uses of ketamine as a fast-acting drug to treat depression with some success, and that has piqued the interest of drug companies.

Ketamine is a common party drug that may have important psychiatric applications.

The drug certainly is likely not suitable for all cases of depression, and some scientists are concerned that we don’t know enough about ketamine’s long-term effects to prescribe it on a broad scale. But in certain situations—such as when a patient is suicidal—the compound has proven itself quite useful, acting in a matter of hours as opposed to weeks in the case of more traditional antidepressants.

The compound also paying scientific dividends. Studying how ketamine interacts with our brains has been revelatory for scientists. Here’s Sara Reardon, reporting for Nature News:

Today’s most common antidepressants target the brain’s serotonin or noradrenaline pathways (some target both). Ketamine blocks the signalling molecule NMDA, a component of the glutamate pathway, which is involved in memory and cognition. Before ketamine was studied, no one even knew that the pathway was involved in depression, [psychiatrist James] Murrough says.

In the wake of recenting findings by Murrough and others, pharmaceutical companies have begun developing related, patentable compounds that aspire to ketamine’s antidepressant properties without the hallucinations or dissociative effects. Though, as Reardon’s sources points out, plain old ketamine may suffice. Therapeutic doses do produce the out-of-body experience, but they aren’t strong enough to induce hallucinations. Plus, unmodified ketamine is bound to remain cheaper and more abundant than any patented, derivative version. That may be just what psychiatrists and patients need.