How Ketamine Went Legit as an Anti-Depressant

Research on the illicit drug's antidepressant properties is now being conducted at the federal level.

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Ketamine, the choice drug of ‘90s club kids that puts you in a trance-like state, just gained serious government cred: Scientists from the U.S. National Institutes of Health, publishing this week in the journal Nature, report that the street drug formerly known as “Special K” is a rapid and effective antidepressant.

The news echoes findings of much smaller-scale studies of recent years aiming to figure out how to repurpose the illicit drug for good.

In a series of studies carried out by NIH-funded scientists at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, working together with the National Institutes of Mental Health, researchers discovered how ketamine can lift depression in a matter of hours or even minutes — when administered in a controlled setting, adding that the effects of a single dose can last up to a week.

For comparison, antidepressants currently on the market need weeks to take effect.

In the study in Nature, in which the researchers describe their experiments with depressed mice — rodents that have the tendency to give up on tasks easily in difficult circumstances — they outline the mechanics behind ketamine’s antidepressant properties.

It turns out that it’s not so much the drug itself but its metabolites — the compounds that are left over after the body breaks it down — that trigger the speedy change in mood.

This is perhaps why the NIH is so comfortable touting its experimentation with the maligned illicit drug: By focusing on ketamine’s metabolites and not the drug in its common form, they hope to develop antidepressants that don’t have any of the dissociative, anesthetic, and euphoric side effects that made ketamine so popular among ravers in the first place.

Using ketamine as an antidepressant isn’t a new idea, but it’s only recently received attention on the federal scale. That the government has taken note is a promising sign for depression treatment: If subsequent studies show consistent parallels between the drug effects in mice and humans, the drug’s trajectory from club to laboratory to clinic could receive a major boost.

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