Scientists have recently discovered a new use for a drug commonly used as an anesthetic in veterinary medicine and favored as a nightclub “fix” nicknamed Special K. The drug is ketamine and it is commonly used as an anesthetic for animals. However its short-term hallucogenic side effects have also made it popular with those looking for thrills by illegal use of this controlled substance.

Studies have found that a small amount of ketamine can improve medical depression within hours, unlike the days and weeks which more common anti-depression medications can take to have an effect. Better still, a single dose of ketamine can last for up to 10 days. One study carried out at the Connecticut Mental Health Center reported that in a clinical trial, 70% of depressed patients who had failed to respond to years of traditional antidepressant treatments saw an improvement within hours of being given a single dose of ketamine.

It has been hailed as “a magic drug” by Professor Ronald Duman at Yale University, as one dose can work rapidly and last for seven to ten days. Ketamine works totally differently to more traditional antidepressant treatments. It progresses through the nervous system, following a pathway that forms new synaptic connections between the neurons in a process known as “synaptogenesis”. The drug restores brain connections which have been damaged by stress.

However, the drug’s potential is still a long way from being made available for general use. The current downsides which are now being studied are the fact that the liquid form of the drug has to be intravenously injected, and it does have addictive properties. Although only a very low dosage level is needed to improve depression, it can cause hallucinations which may last for up to 90 minutes after taking the drug. Although proving to be a scientific breakthrough, ketamine clearly needs further analysis and modification. Understanding the mechanism of how the drug works may help doctors to understand how to treat depression using the same pathway that ketamine uses so effectively.

Although ketamine is a cheap drug, approving it for medical use is still a long way down the road, but this discovery is a big step towards exploring alternative ways to treat depression, a conditional which affects an estimated 9 million Americans and rising.

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