Ketamine 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.
Recreational drug users call it “Special K.” Large, frequent doses of the anesthetic ketamine can give users vivid hallucinations, but a recently published study hints that the drug may have a medicinal use: temporarily treating depression brought on by bipolar disorder.
The small, proof-of-concept study appears in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry. National Institutes of Health researchers randomly gave 18 depressed patients ketamine or a placebo on two different days, two weeks apart. They used a much smaller dose of the drug than the amount used for recreation or anesthesia, but within 40 minutes 71 percent of the patients who received ketamine showed a significant improvement in mood, which lasted for three days, as measured using a psychiatric depression rating scale.
The quick response time is unusual for the drugs typically used to treat bipolar disorder’s depression, such as lithium or antidepressants like Prozac, and many of the study’s patients had failed to respond to other treatments. On average, the study participants had tried seven antidepressants and 55 percent of participants had failed to respond positively to the extreme measures of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT)–seizures brought on by electrical current. Ketamine’s apparent success may have to do with the neurotransmitter, glutamate: