Ketamine, a prescription drug that has been used as an anesthetic for decades and gained popularity on the street as "Special K," is being tested in Houston as a quick fix to severe depression.
Researchers at the Neuro Psychiatric Center next to Ben Taub General Hospital are testing one infusion of ketamine for its short-term effects in treating depression.
If the study's results are successful, a second study will administer ketamine three times a week to patients to test the drug's long-term effects.
"This is supposed to help for a couple months. The study is still under way, so it's hard for us to know now how long the effects will last. Will it cure depression for a year or longer? I don't think so. But we're hoping it will work for a few months in the second trial," said Dr. Asim Shah, who directs the mood disorder program at Ben Taub General Hospital.
Shah said so far the results are promising, but using ketamine to treat depression is not yet FDA approved.
Anti-depressants like Prozac or Celexa usually take at least a few weeks to start working. During that time, patients are more susceptible to suicide.
"Sometimes what happens is that a person's energy improves before their mood improves. So if you still feel horribly depressed and hopeless, but have a return of your energy, your risk of being suicidal increases," said Dr. Ken Robbins, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
"If it pans out that a shot of ketamine will temporarily pull someone out of their depression, that would still be incredibly helpful. If someone is feeling horrible to the point where you're concerned they're suicidal, this could fill the time lapse that regular anti-depressants take to kick in," Robbins said.
Ketamine is administered intravenously, and so it is being tested to be used at hospitals and psychiatric facilities.
"It's something that needs to be administered to you. I don't know how it would potentially be used if it turns out to have long-term benefits," Robbins said.
The researchers at Ben Taub are working on a few other studies as well, including testing a pill form of a drug similar to ketamine.
But it would be at least a couple of years before the drug is available, if the studies are successful.
"This research is really exciting, but it's in its infancy," Robbins said.