Ketamine, a Tranquilizer and Popular Club Drug, May Work for Depression

Aug. 7, 2006 — -- It may have a notorious reputation among police officers, but ketamine appears to be more than just a sedative and a dangerous club drug. A new study published today in the Archives of General Psychiatry shows it can rapidly ease the symptoms of severe clinical depression, too.

Dubbed "special K" by those who use it, ketamine is a popular party drug because it can cause hallucinations and changes in mood similar to those produced by the drug ecstasy. It can also be used for a far more sinister purpose, as a date-rape drug, because it temporarily wipes out memory. It's legal use is as a sedating anesthetic for animals and humans.

But a growing body of research has indicated that it may one day offer a solution to the intense feelings of depression, as illustrated by a National Institute of Mental Health study of 18 depressed people.

Of those in the group who received an injection of ketamine, 71 percent experienced immediate and long-lasting relief from depression, while none in the placebo group did.

The study authors said this is important, because most current antidepressant medications take several weeks to kick in, leaving a big window of time in which people could act out their depressive symptoms.

"This line of research holds considerable promise," the authors said in the study, "[but] future studies need to be carried out."

Unlike antidepressants, ketamine affects the body's glutamatergic system, which regulates learning and memory. It's theorized that this system also affects mood, which may explain why ketamine appears to relieve depression symptoms.