New research has found that the veterinarian drug ketamine hydrochloride when used experimentally relieves symptoms of depression and suicidal tendencies within hours instead of the months it takes today's antidepressants to work.
Chief Experimental Therapeutics of the Mood and Anxiety Disorders Program at the National Institute of Mental Health at Washington University, Carlos Zarate, has been studying how ketamine can be used in treating depression, anxiety and related disorders as current drugs prescribed like Prozac and Paxil, not only have many unpleasant side effect including nausea, headaches, insomnia and sexual performance, but take weeks to take effect and for many don't work.
Ketamine, which has the street name of Green, K, super K, special K or Vitamin K, is traditionally used as a pain reliever or anaesthetic for humans but more commonly for pets. However in the 1970s recreational drug users found that it could give you a 'high' by changing a person's thinking and perception of time and emotions.
The drugs currently used for depression work by regulating brain chemicals serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine, which can effect emotion and feeling of wellbeing. This method works very slowly as it is hard to decipher what the chemical imbalance is. The problem could be the brain making too much of a particular chemical or they may be a problem with the brains receptors to the chemical, so sufferers of depression usually spend months to years trying to find the drug that suits them best.
However ketamine acts on a chemical called glutamate, which is much closer to the problem, Zarate says. Zarate has been working on ketamine since early 2000, when he began to hear anecdotal reports that ketamine could relieve depression almost instantly.
"We can take care of a migraine in hours," says Zarate, "So why do we have to wait weeks or months with depression?"
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The study included 17 volunteers with depression who had not responded to previous drugs. Researchers found that after a single dose of ketamine, 12 of the 17 got much better within hours. And the effect lasted for more than a week.
Researchers from Yale had previously found that the glutamate system can affect brain cells when forming new connections, and that stress and long term depression could weaken some of these connections. However ketamine appears to reverse the process.
Although ketamine itself will not be administered as an antidepressant as it has many side effects including hallucinations and is extremely addictive, it could be key to discovering how to make faster acting drugs for depression.
The Australian government Department of Health and Aging claim about 20 percent of Australians will be affected by depression and 6 percent will experience a major depressive illness and the greatest numbers of people with a mental illness are in the 18-24 year age group.
Today's antidepressant medications eventually end up doing the same thing, but they go about it the long way around, with a lot of biochemical steps that take time. Now we've shown what the key targets are and that we can get at them rapidly," said Zarate. "Ketamine probably can't become the medication of choice, but this research is leading to some very real possibilities for a whole new generation of antidepressant medications."