News Feature | April 4, 2014

Ketamine Could Potentially Treat Patients With Severe Depression

By Marcus Johnson

Ketamine has potential to be used as a treatment for patients with severe depression, British researchers say. The researchers used infusions of the drug, nicknamed “special K,” to treat a group of 28 patients with major depressive disorder. While many patients relapsed after a day or two, roughly a third of them showed improvements that lasted three weeks. Fifteen percent avoided relapse for more than two months.                                   

Rupert McShane, who works as a researcher and psychiatrist at Oxford University and headed the study, thinks there must be larger clinical studies before ketamine could become an acceptable treatment. He says, “[This treatment is] dramatic and it's exciting, and it is a novel mechanism. But it's not about to become a routine treatment,” said McShane. “We've seen remarkable changes in people who've had severe depression for many years that no other treatment has touched. It's very moving to witness. We now need to build up clinical experience with ketamine in a small number of carefully monitored patients. By trying different infusion regimes and adding other licensed drugs, we hope to find simple ways to prolong its dramatic effect. ”

Ketamine currently is a licensed medical drug used as an anesthetic and for relieving pain. It has become notorious for recreational abuse, which can lead to bladder problems and loss of cognitive function. The researchers used no more than 80 milligrams, while recreational users can use as many as several grams each day. Drug producers such as Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca have experimented with creating a ketamine based drug. AstraZeneca has since abandoned its research on the experimental drug.