Ketamine, known to former ‘90s club kids simply as “Special K,” is known to be a mild hallucinogen to snort for a dumb, fun night out. What most people don’t know is that it’s already approved by the FDA and has been used as an anesthetic since 1970. Now, scientists at Texas A&M University suggest it could do a whole lot more, indicating that it could offer a treatment for pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and ringing ears.
The researchers were primarily investigating ketamine’s effects on reducing chronic pain, but they found that it has the bonus effect of easing the depression symptoms common to those patients. It helps, too, that the drug acts quickly, both as an antidepressant and to ease pain. Pointing out that ketamine’s effects can be felt after only a single dose, the researchers point out that its speed is especially helpful in preventing suicide.
The drug also seems to aid in reducing severe tinnitus, the ringing of the ears that plagues soldiers and currently lacks any sort of treatment. Phantom sounds, pain, depression, and PTSD all go hand in hand, and the researchers hope to find a way to use ketamine to safely treat all of them at once.
“It’s a lot more economical to repurpose drugs than to take a new drug and make it from scratch,” says Dr. David E. Potter, chair of pharmaceutical sciences at the university’s College of Pharmacy. Ketamine wouldn’t have to go through an expensive battery of clinical tests again, saving researchers and potential recipients both time and money.
That’s not to say that ketamine is the next great miracle drug. The reason recreational users often feel like they’re floating is because ketamine pretty much causes parts of the brain to dissociate. Tightly controlling dosage will be key to using the drug to benefit, not harm.
Ketamine is one of many “street” drugs being considered for use in therapy. Research on hallucinogens like LSD, magic mushrooms, and MDMA as treatments for PTSD and anxiety associated with terminal illness is currently experiencing a resurgence.