Could Illegal Drugs Like Ketamine and LSD Become Serious Medicine?

By Andrew Moseman | August 23, 2010 11:22 am

Ketamine_bottlesKetamine for bipolar disorder. LSD for depression. It’s been a busy month for psychedelic drugs in the laboratory, as several studies showed that these drugs typically used recreationally—and illegally—affect the brain in ways that could make them useful for treating mental illness.

First came a small study in the Archives of General Psychiatry that we covered earlier this month, in which scientists tested 18 patients who on average had tried seven kinds of drugs to treat their bipolar disorder. When the researchers gave them small doses of ketamine—a powerful anesthetic that people use recreationally for the hallucinogenic side effects—the patients’ depressive symptoms lessened within a matter of minutes.

Compared to placebo, patients showed significant improvement in mood within 40 minutes of receiving the ketamine infusion, using a common depression rating scale. Symptom improvement peaked two days after the injection, but remained significantly greater than for placebo for three days. Seventy-one percent of the patients responded to ketamine, meaning they had at least a 50 percent improvement in their depressive symptoms. Six percent responded to placebo [Reuters].

Doctors found those results remarkable, because typical antidepressant drugs can take weeks to kick in. Last week saw a separate study that tried to unravel just what ketamine was doing in the brain to create such a fast response. In Science, a team led by Ron Duman tested the drug on rats, and found that its M.O. is enhancing communication in the brain.

“Ketamine… can induce a rapid increase in connections in the brain, the synapses by which neurons interact and communicate with each other, ” Duman says. “You can visually see this response that occurs in response to ketamine.” More specifically … ketamine seems to stimulate a biochemical pathway in the brain (known as mTOR) to strengthen synapses in a rat’s prefrontal cortex—the region of the brain associated with thinking and personality in humans. And the ketamine helped rats cope with the depression analog experience brought on by forcing the rodents to swim or exposing them to inescapable stress [Scientific American].

Writing in Nature Neuroscience Reviews, Franz Vollenweider and Michael Kometer argue that the growing body of research suggests we should change how we think not just about ketamine, but also about psychedelic drugs like LSD and even the active ingredient in magic mushrooms—they all could have something to offer serious medicine.

Mental illnesses such as depression are a growing health problem around the world and Vollenweider and Kometer said many patients with severe or chronic psychiatric problems fail to respond to medicines like the widely-prescribed selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, like Prozac or Paxil [ABC News].

The two authors argue that it would be possible to take advantage of psychedelics’ therapeutic benefits if they were given by doctors in controlled amounts. But using illegal drugs in medicine comes with huge legal and political hurdles, as any medicinal marijuana advocate knows. So scientists are already working on the best of both worlds: trying to develop drugs that mimic ketamine or LSD’s effects on the brain without all the hallucinogenic side effects.

Related Content:
80beats: Can a Party Drug Mitigate Bipolar Disorder’s Depression?
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DISCOVER: Peyote on the Brain
DISCOVER: Treating Agony With Ecstasy

Image: Wikimedia Commons

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Mind & Brain
  • ChH

    I have an idea:
    How about the government lets adults make their own decisions regarding their own health, and lets them live (or die from) the consequences?

  • Svamp


  • Rhacodactylus

    That would be great ChH if it wouldn’t cost millions to care for them in hospitals when they OD. It’s the same thing as motorcycle helmet laws, no one cares if you crack your skull open, what I care about is supporting you on a ventilator for 15 years. Now, if you could sign away your right to life saving intervention . . . then i’d be willing to talk.

  • Chris the Canadian

    Well, if Doctors can harness the powers of these phsycadelic drugs and remove the bad side effects (LCD in particular) then I say go for it. I, for one, am on a very light anti-depressent that works well for me however, I also know that the 2 or 3 times I’ve been exposed to Magic Mushrooms, I’ve laughed my fanny off for 14 – 16 hours straight!!!

  • ChH

    Rhaco – are you from New Caledonia?

    There’s basically two ways to handle health, with two logical extremes and an ugly mix of inconsistent & illogical policies in the middle:

    1. Gov’t takes care of everyone’s health care, and to save money, forces people to behave in a healthy manner.

    2. Competent adults are responsible for their own care & that of their dependents. Private charities free to choose to help those they deem needy/worthy of help. Government sticks to preventing people from harming each other – and allows people to harm themselves.

    Obviously I’m for option 2. In that case I either pay for my own ventilator (out of pocket or via private insurance) … or not.

    Chris – if someone develops a liquid crystal display without the side effects, let me know – I want one.

  • mdk

    Nice! I am bi-polar and need a prescription asap

  • grim

    ChH, it is one thing to allow people to make decisions about their own health, but what happens when one of those people get behind the wheel of a car and kill someone

  • scribbler

    Uh, the cost of the “war on drugs” WAAAAY outstrips any damage done when they were legal…

  • Pockets

    i think the logic used in what is legal and illegal drugs used for prescription as it stands is fundamentally flawed. I can go to rite aid and pick up amphetamines, a highly addictive illegal substance if not prescribed, and no one bats an eye. Why wouldn’t other chemicals found in illegal drugs if they help be tested and then become available to those that it would help.

  • ChH

    grim, I’m for limited government, not anarchy. The basic role of government is to prevent people from harming its citizens. So – if someone wants to impair themselves in private, that’s their business. But if they then get behind the wheel, government has a proper role in stopping them.

    Besides – that’s no argument for keeping drugs illegal. The vast majority of deaths due to impaired driving are due to legal alcohol.

  • Nikki B

    @Rhac – Who says they’d want to keep going on a ventilator for 15 years? It’s horrible that a mercy turning off of the ventilator is still considered murder in this country..

    I’m crossing my fingers that Mary Jane becomes completely legal in Nov in Cali. Granted I don’t live there, but hopefully other states will come to their senses and realize that the “War on Drugs” is not the answer.

    I AM glad that scientific research is being done on these substances though, and not completely ignored as “just wrong to consume.”

  • Brian Too

    Yeah, I too am baffled. Lots of legal drugs can and are abused, every day. Yeesh, Ritalin, Talwin, painkillers, pseudoephedrine, the list is very, very long.

    Why can we not write prescriptions for drugs, even if they are ‘illegal’? Your prescription should be your ticket out of any sort of trouble. As long as you don’t resell or give away, you are under medical care and that should be the end of it.

    I realize that these illegal drugs don’t have the proper scientific study due to their illegal status and shady past. However proper studies ought to be possible, with double-blind controls and the whole deal. It’s all about the patients, right? Or have we abandoned that ideal too?

  • ChH

    Here’s what it’s about: It is human nature to want to tell others what to do, and not to do what you’re told. Herein lies the conflict.

  • liss

    Thankfully, LSD is non-toxic, has no known adverse physical after-effects other than fatigue and a lingering sensation of mind-expansion.

    People seem to assume that because a drug is illegal there must be terrible side effects, danger of overdosing, or a basis for chemical addiction, but in fact, politics (particularly racism) have more to do with the scheduling of drugs in our society. LSD hardly deserves to be equated with substances like meth, cocaine, or heroin.

    It’s nice to see scientists taking a more open-minded look at therapeutic uses of substances wrongly labeled as evil and dangerous. There’s no place for assumption, racism, or black and white thinking within science. Hope for the future!

  • liberty or death

    Rhacodactylus, you should not be allowed to drive a car as it is almost infinitely more dangerous than tripping.
    Please get a grip on your paranoia and keep it to your self, it is you and your kind that killed liberty in my country and those of us who understand what liberty is and what it is worth are sick of you.

  • Angela

    @ liberty or death: I don’t know where you’re getting that Rhacodactylus is paranoid and trying to kill liberty. I read it as saying it would be great if we could leave it to every person to make their own decision, but that unfortunately personal decisions can have ramifications beyond the individual.

    I too wish that we could simply leave decisions to the individual, but unfortunately, many people make decisions that have a negative impact on society at large. Think of the drunk drivers who insist they are fine to drive but then crash into another car. That has a huge impact on the other person and takes up time from law enforcement and medical personnel.

    A drunk driver crashed into my parked car a couple of years ago, and it cost me a lot of time and money out of my pocket to get my car fixed, getting back and forth from the repair shop, calling both of our insurance companies, etc. The driver was underage and had staggered out of her crashed car before passing out on the ground. It was Valentine’s Day, and the temperature was in the high-teens that night. She’s just lucky someone saw her at 3 am and called 911 or she would have frozen to death. After the cops came to my apartment to speak with me, I had to spend several hours in the cold with the police writing up the accident report and getting insurance information. The girl was sitting in the back of an ambulance all this time while the cop was asking her questions. She wasted a bunch of people’s time by choosing to drive drunk (ironically, she was supposed to have been the DD for her friends!). Her insurance company finally paid for the repairs, but I still had to take my time to get 2 estimates and then my car to and from the repair facility. They finally, grudgingly, paid for my rental car but not for the time I missed at work, and I ended up missing almost 2 days at work to deal with insurance stuff and car repairs. I’d have much rather used my vacation days on something other than cleaning up her mess! (I’m still annoyed that her insurance company tried to blame it on my and said that I shouldn’t have parked my car where I did. It was in a spot in the parking lot… where else should I park my car? Perhaps their client just shouldn’t have driven off the road, across a 30 foot strip of grass, down an embankment and into my car parked in the parking lot instead! But they tried to argue that it was my fault for parking my car in a marked spot in my apartment parking lot rather than hers for crashing into my parked car. They took as far as binding arbitration, where the arbitrator ruled that it was, in fact, the drunk girl’s fault. Talk about trying to elude responsibility!)

    It was illegal for an 18 year old to drink, and definitely illegal for her to drive while intoxicated, but she did it anyway, so having these laws don’t seem to do a great deal of good. I’m perfectly willing to take responsibility for my decisions and my actions, but I’m tried of being responsible for other people’s decisions and actions. If this girl was going to drink, then I don’t see why she wasn’t the one who had to fight with the insurance companies and make sure my car got fixed. So if we legalize these drugs, fine. Just don’t expect me to clean up or pay for any problems that are caused by others abusing them.

    If we find legitimate, medical uses for them, great! Make them legal by prescription only. But that won’t stop those who want them badly enough from getting them somehow, either from a doctor who will gladly write any prescription for a price, online pharmacies that don’t require a valid prescription or the friendly corner drug dealer. Keep doing the research though, as we never know what dug may have uses far beyond what we currently think.

  • KAte

    Hi, I think people need to look at the compelling evidence for “psychedelics-as-medicines” that has been gathered by MAPS ( ).

  • de


    that would be a reasonable argument if we weren’t already spending millions SUPPORTING drug users in hospitals. ask any nurse. they have a patient every night who comes in from the ER with some kind of pain or something else bogus. and they have no choice but to treat them. ya… and then they don’t pay. and there’s nothing the hospitals can do because idk about whree you live . but where i live. hospitals can’t refuse service.

  • durtro

    i currently use ketamine to combat peripheral neuropathy. it does what no opiate can. it kills the neural pain. if you use sub-clinical doses like 45-75 mg. IM, it can’t be beat for neural pain. it ended pain that i had for ten years and a GRAM A DAY METHADONE HABIT!
    adjusting the dose for proper effect was a rocky-road, also learning about the stereo-isomer the hard way. i’m charting new ground, and all my doctors forbid it.

    i have AIDS, HCV, chronic arthritis, several joint disorders and car-wreck damage. intractable pain and addiction to the grave, and still in pain. ketamine ended that forever.

    screw my doctor. i have a life.

  • joe

    @dutro: I have arthritis, do you think ketamine helps that being as it isn’ exactly peripheral neuropathy?
    @Angela: You were impinging on the freedoms of that 18 year old by parking your car in the path of her driving trajectory.


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