Ketamine, also known as Ketalar, Ketaset, and Ketanest, is a medication that’s currently FDA approved only as an anesthetic but it’s showing great potential as a treatment for severe depression. Depressed patients with stubborn symptoms get relief within hours rather than weeks with conventional anti-depressants. Doctors can only prescribe ketamine for depression off-label because studies are relatively new, but experts are saying that ketamine is one of the biggest breakthroughs in severe depression treatment to come along in decades .
Ketamine is a powerful pain reliever and a relaxant, but at higher doses it can also induce unconsciousness and disturbances in how a person experiences sight and sound. In high doses, it can produce hallucinations and delusions and its ability to create strong dissociative experiences have made it popular in the club scene where it’s known as “Special K”. An overdose of ketamine can be fatal and it can be addictive if patients don’t follow their doctor’s prescription guidelines. Currently, ketamine is scheduled as a class III drug and it’s created a lot of controversy among experts who disagree about whether it’s safe for doctors to prescribe it as a treatment for chronic depression. Despite the intrigue and the need for additional research to establish its safety and efficacy, ketamine clinics are now offering infusion treatments to patients all over the United States .
As a street drug, ketamine creates a sense of dissociation and can change a person’s sense of hearing and sight, but for patients with severe depression, ketamine relieves mood problems within hours or sometimes moments for about 85% of those treated. While conventional anti-depressants can take several weeks to take effect, studies have shown that ketamine often improves depression symptoms almost immediately. Patients typically feel better within hours .
Doctors, dentists, and psychiatrists prescribe ketamine to help their patients achieve a variety of different health goals. Doctors often use ketamine in FDA approved situations such as procedures involving cardiac catheterization, orthopedics, skin grafting, or diagnostics involving the eye, ear, nose, and throat. Surgical dentists may also use ketamine as an anesthesia during tooth extractions. After other treatment options have been attempted and failed, doctors may use ketamine to treat certain types of seizures in patients with status epilepticus .
Researchers demonstrated in 2014 that ketamine reduced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in 41 patients and there are other exciting possibilities on the horizon in terms of PTSD treatment. Treatment-resistant depression and substance use disorders could both be treated with this drug, though many medical professionals view ketamine treatment for these mental health issues as controversial .
Central Sensitization is a process the central nervous system goes through which causes Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS/RSD) and other types of chronic pain. In central sensitization the number of NMDA receptors increases which amplifies a patients’ experience of pain. Ketamine interferes with NMDA receptors which puts a damper on pain signaling, providing pain relief and a desensitization to pain for patients affected by CRPS .
At low doses, ketamine can relieve chronic pain and potentiate the effects of sedatives. Researchers believe that ketamine could provide an alternative to more addictive painkillers like morphine if the FDA approves it for this use .
In the 1960’s doctors used ketamine as an anesthetic on the battlefields in Vietnam because administration lends itself well to use in disaster zones; doctors don’t need electricity, an oxygen supply, or even highly trained staff to give patients ketamine. Since that time, the FDA has only approved ketamine for use as an anesthetic in hospitals and medical settings. As an anesthetic, ketamine doesn’t lower the patient’s breathing rate or blood pressure, which makes it safer than other anesthesia options. It’s for this reason that veterinarians use ketamine more than any other type of anesthetic for surgery on animals .
Depression is a major issue in the United States and though there are many anti-depressants on the market, about one-third of patients don’t experience any relief from their symptoms using the drugs that are currently available. Ketamine acts on depression by rebalancing a different set of neurotransmitters and receptors (the NMDA/glutamate receptors and GABA receptors) than the old-school Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (which function by blocking reabsorption of serotonin). By blocking glutamate receptors in the brain, the majority of patients with ‘Treatment Resistant Depression’ are able to experience relief from their symptoms using ketamine .
Even though ketamine has yet to be approved by the FDA for use in treating depression, patients are flocking to ketamine clinics to receive the treatment off-label. It provides fast relief, which is vitally important in cases where patients feel suicidal and for depressed patients who have tried all of the other anti-depressants available with no luck, ketamine offers new hope. Infusion treatments take about 1 hour at a clinic, but the results are long-lasting with most patients returning only once every one to two weeks over a specified period of time. The treatment is expensive, but the results are promising enough that patients are willing to pay out-of-pocket for it .
The FDA hasn’t yet approved ketamine for use as an anti-depressant, but both Esketamine and Rapastinel (developed by Johnson & Johnson and Allergan respectively) have been fast-tracked as breakthrough drugs. The demand for these two medications is projected to grow rapidly in the coming years. Still, doctors can only prescribe ketamine for depression off-label since ketamine has been FDA approved for use as an anesthetic, not as an anti-depressant. Researchers have cautioned doctors to avoid over-prescribing this drug because the long-term health and well-being of patients could be at risk. Ketamine has a high potential for abuse, after all and experts claim that the evidence does not exist to prove that this drug is safe .
Ketamine is abused as a recreational drug and it has effects that are similar to Phenylcyclidine (PCP), LSD, dextromethorphan (DXM) and nitrous oxide (laughing gas). Ketamine is a dissociative anesthetic that can alter one’s sense of sight and sound and also produce profound relaxation, hallucinations, and delusions for about an hour. The effects of the drug come on almost immediately. It has been used as a rape drug that can render women unable to speak or to move .
People who abuse ketamine have developed serious bladder and kidney problems such as ulcerative cystitis, stomach issues, and memory loss. In fact, street users even risk developing depression as a result of addiction and dependence on the drug .
Doctors may prescribe ketamine by itself or in tandem with other anti-depressants . Many experts on depression recommend that ketamine only be used as a short-term depression treatment option while other anti-depressants are taking effect. Though there are convenient ketamine nasal sprays in research and development by Johnson & Johnson, the high-potential for abuse of this drug has made many doctors and psychiatrists wary of using this drug to treat depression long-term. Further, some medical organizations are concerned that the long-term effects of chronic ketamine use is not well-understood. According to these organizations, more research is needed to establish the safety of this drug .
Thomas Insel, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health says, “Recent data suggest that ketamine, given intravenously might be the most important breakthrough anti-depressant in decades.” Conventional anti-depressants aren’t able to help about one-third of patients with major depression, but new ketamine drugs such as esketamine (in development by Johnson and Johnson) may offer new hope. Infusion therapies available through ketamine clinics across the United States report a high success rate of 60% to 70% treating Treatment Resistant Depression as well as Major Depression with risk of suicide .
Two drugs, Johnson & Johnson’s Esketamine and Allergan’s Rapastinel, were both upgraded to ‘fast-track’ status by the FDA in 2016 due to their importance and promise in treating treatment resistant depression.
Depression is the leading cause of disability in the world and currently, 12% of Americans (about 29 million people) are taking anti-depressant medications. The suicide rate is higher now than it has been in over 30 years. And about one-third of depressed Americans don’t experience relief taking conventional anti-depressants. In the interest of capitalizing on the market value of depression, which is projected to almost double by the year 2024, the FDA will review the use of these new ketamine-based depression drugs in 2018 and 2019, allowing Johnson & Johnson and Allergan to go through an abbreviated version of the normally lengthy FDA approval process for new drug therapies .
Drug trials have shown that 60% to 70% of patients with Treatment-Resistant Depression have been responsive to ketamine. Esketamine, a nasal spray developed by Johnson & Johnson, is in Phase III clinical trials right now. They are expected to receive FDA approval later in 2018, and once that happens, it will open doors for administering ketamine outside a clinic setting.
Rapastinel, which was developed by Allergan, is out of Phase III and awaiting FDA approval. The drug can be administered within 30 seconds intravenously and Allergan is working to develop an oral version of the drug as well .
Ketamine therapy is usually performed at a ketamine clinic. Patients receive an intravenous infusion of the drug with relief from depression symptoms that can last for several weeks.
Ketamine can be injected directly into muscle tissue or it can be given intravenously. Researchers for Johnson & Johnson have also recently developed new treatment protocol called Esketamine that’s awaiting FDA approval. Using Esketamine, patients will be able to self-administer the drug as a nasal mist .
Patients must receive a referral from a doctor to go to a ketamine clinic. There, patients can receive an intravenous infusion of ketamine. On the first visit, a doctor will assess the patient before hooking the patient up to a ketamine IV. Patients then experience a variety of sensations during the infusion and for up to 2 hours following the infusion. Many patients report feeling a sense of deep relaxation and the ability to reflect on past traumas and anxieties calmly .
Researchers have demonstrated that a deficiency in certain vital connections between certain neurons in the brain may cause depression. Ketamine works as an NMDA receptor antagonist (NMDA is a glutamate receptor also known as N-methyl-d-aspartate) and an AMPA receptor stimulator. As such, ketamine stimulates the development of new receptors and synapses in the brain which helps patients regulate their mood, sleep better, and experience better focus .
Ketamine works by interfering with and rebalancing the glutamatergic system (glutamate and GABA) to stimulate new synaptic connections, better memory, and brain plasticity . During ketamine infusions, patients may feel capable of exploring traumatic memories more calmly to reframe the past or they may feel a pleasant sensation of relaxation or floating . Effects from an infusion can last for up to a week or two.
Intranasal ketamine formulas work by binding to a receptor called N-methyl-d-aspartate. In the brain, ketamine blocks the neurotransmitter glutamate which causes communication between the conscious mind and other parts of the mind (such as mood centers) to be blocked. In low doses, it relieves depression, but in higher doses, it can cause patients to feel an uncomfortable sense of dissociation from the body similar to a near death experience .
While most anti-depressant medications must build up in the body over the course of several weeks in order to have an effect, ketamine’s mood-altering benefits happen as the drug leaves the body. Researchers don’t know why this is the case, or even exactly how the drug achieves its strong anti-depressant effects but the fact is, ketamine works quickly to relieve depression symptoms in 85% of patients who are resistant to other forms of therapy . Standard anti-depressants target the neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine, but ketamine is different. Ketamine blocks glutamate and stimulates synaptic plasticity or the ability of the brain to change and grow .
Doctors don’t fully understand how ketamine works or the potential effects that patients may experience from taking tiny doses of this drug over and over again. What is known is that recreational users can suffer ulcerative cystitis or cognitive issues as a result of prolonged use .
Researchers are working to find the perfect ketamine dose for depression patients. The risk of overdosing on this drug is high for the recreational user because there is only a slight difference between a dosage that leads to desirable effects and one that can cause a lethal overdose. The goal for researchers is to find an exact dosage that’s high enough to get rid of symptoms of depression but low enough to prevent patients from experiencing hearing and sight disturbances as well as the other negative effects from the drug . Ketamine produces only temporary effects on severe depression. Patients must continue to return to the clinic for infusions every few weeks to keep their depression symptoms in check .
Ketamine therapy is rarely covered by insurance and it’s pricey. Patients typically pay between $400 and $800 per infusion. On a bi-weekly schedule for ketamine treatments, patients can expect to pay about $15,000 out-of-pocket annually .
Ketamine use can cause a variety of side effects including:
Off-label ketamine infusion therapy is an unregulated business that has gotten the attention of both clinicians and medical organizations. There are currently ketamine clinics in a number of cities throughout the United States .
With locations in 9 different states including:
Patients who use ketamine long-term may develop a tolerance and addiction to the drug over time. In medical settings, ketamine is safe to use because the dosage is carefully calibrated and monitored, but there is a high potential for abuse when patients use ketamine recreationally as a street drug. If patients don’t follow their doctor’s prescription for ketamine it can have extremely negative mental and physical effects particularly on the brain and bladder .
Both Rapastinel and Esketamine are ketamine-based drugs that have been ‘fast-tracked’ by the FDA because the FDA has identified them as “breakthrough drugs” .
Allergan developed Rapastinel, a ketamine drug that can be administered in 30 seconds intravenously. It works on the same receptors as ketamine, but it doesn’t produce hallucinations. An oral version of Rapastinel is also in development. The FDA considers Rapastinel to be a “breakthrough drug” which means that Allergan can speed through the lengthy drug approval process and get the drug to market by 2019 .
The FDA has designated Esketamine a “breakthrough therapy”, which means that the drug developers, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, can speed through the lengthy drug approval process to get the drug on the market more quickly. Esketamine can be administered like a nasal decongestant, which would make it more convenient than intravenous therapy for depression patients. Experts feel that Esketemine would be most appropriately used as an adjunct therapy in combination with other anti-depressant medications, not as a standalone treatment for depression .
According to one recent study, when administered in combination with other oral antidepressants, Esketamine reduced patients’ depression symptoms more than oral anti-depressants alone. The anti-depressant effects of using a conventional anti-depressant in conjunction with Esketamine occurred within only about 1 week. When used alone, Esketamine effects seem to last 1 to 7 days in most patients. Esketamine is in Phase 3 testing with the FDA for use as a drug for ‘Treatment Resistant Depression’ and Major Depression with risk of suicide. Johnson & Johnson will file for FDA approval for this drug as a depression treatment in 2018 .
Ketamine abuse is a serious problem. It is possible to become addicted to ketamine. Patients may begin to need higher doses of the drug in order to experience the positive effects. An overdose of ketamine can be deadly. The effects of using ketamine chronically over a long period of time have not been established, but recreational drug users who have used ketamine long-term have developed ulcerative cystitis as well as cognitive issues .
While ketamine can literally save lives by relieving the symptoms of major, Treatment Resistant Depression, including the risk of suicide, research still has not established the safety of ketamine for long-term use. The lethal dose of ketamine is only slightly higher than the therapeutic dose and its addictive properties mean that it could cause depressed patients more problems than it solves. Ketamine clinics have popped up all over the country to cash in on the high demand for a depression treatment that really works, but the research hasn’t demonstrated that this drug is safe for chronic use. So this is an instance where the buyer needs to beware. The FDA has fast-tracked these drugs because it’s constituents see market potential, but important research still needs to be done on this drug to demonstrate it’s safety and long-term efficacy.
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