Psychedelic Depression

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You are lying in a comfortable reclining chair in a private room with low lights. You are dressed in your street clothes, but you are also connected to monitors for blood pressure, pulse and oxygen saturation. A medical practitioner locates a vein on your arm and uses a tiny needle to insert a thin, flexible tube into your vein. You barely feel the needle inserted because it doesn’t hit any muscle. The tube is connected to a bag of fluid raised a couple of feet above your head and it delivers a carefully measured dose of ketamine directly into your bloodstream to treat your depression.

The above description is for a procedure called ketamine infusion, as it was described on the Ketamine Advocacy Network website. Further reading suggests you will have an almost ethereal experience. It could include a dissociative effect, an out-of-body sensation. You will appear to be asleep, but in reality your mind is very active. “In a state of deep relaxation, you may find that you’re able to reflect on past traumas or current anxieties in a very calm, matter-of-fact way – with zero emotional pain.” Many patients prefer to let their thoughts wander. They suggest doing whatever maximizes your sense of calm and relaxation, as long as your doctor agrees.

Although most patients find the experience relaxing and pleasant, some can have brief moments of fright. Patients who begin the infusion in a state of high anxiety seem most susceptible to this. Many are desperately pinning all their hopes on ketamine to relieve their suffering, which is totally understandable but can amp up their anxiety. Some patients get very tense at the thought of not being in total control of their thoughts or body. Try your best to relax before the infusion begins.

What’s not to like about the above-described treatment for depression? First, remember that it is not an FDA-approved treatment. Second, ketamine used in higher doses than in an infusion is the club drug favorite, Special K. Third, the antidepressant effect from ketamine is limited and of an unknown origin.

Ketamine is a Schedule III controlled substance, approved as a general anesthetic. As Peter Simons reported, it is not approved by the FDA as a treatment for depression and other mental health concerns because of a lack of clear benefit and limited knowledge of its risks. There is some truth to the fact that as a generic drug, it is not attractive for pharmaceutical companies to develop it as a therapeutic agent; they won’t make billions of dollars with it. But the research for its efficacy in treating depression is mixed. Simons referred to a new study by Voort et al. in the Journal of Affective Disorders that extended the duration of depressive symptom remission, but did not fully remit the depression.  He said:

Only one of the twelve patients experienced remission of depression. The pattern shown by previous studies is similar. Within hours after treatment, patients experience a euphoric release of depression, but depressive symptoms return within a day or two. For some patients, they return worse than before. Additional treatments every day or every week have the same effect, but the effect is not cumulative. Once weaned off the continual weekly ketamine treatments, around 90% of patients relapse. As evidenced by this current study, even with continuous treatment, only a small number of patients experience any benefit.

Adverse effects can include increased symptoms of depression, anxiety, and suicidality. Only seven of twelve participants reported any therapeutic effect, and only one patient experienced remission by the end of the trial. One person died by suicide and another was hospitalized for suicidality. “These results confirm suspicions that ketamine is a dangerous experimental treatment with limited benefits and serious risks.” These seem to be further reasons why the FDA has yet to approve ketamine as a treatment for depression.

The addictive potential with ketamine is a real concern. The fast-action and rapid fading effect of the drug seems to potentiate its psychological dependency. Ketamine is also widely misused in East and South-East Asia. In Ketamine: Dreams and Realities, Karl Jensen, a British psychiatrist and a leading authority on ketamine said it was far more likely to create periods of dependence than other psychedelic drugs. “The risk is certainly very high in comparison with drugs such as LSD, DMT, and psilocybian mushrooms, but it is not more than half of those who like it.”

Tolerance is rapid and marked; and the ability to remember the experience fades. Some users, he said, will continue to take ketamine for its cocaine-like effects, its calming effects or its potential to relieve anxiety or depression. However, the fading effect can lead to using higher doses in order to resume its dissociation experience. Jensen then gave an extended quote from The Essential Psychedelic Guide, by D.M. Turner, who died from a ketamine-related incident. The Erowid report on Turner said that in 1996 Turner drew a hot bath, injected an unknown amount of ketamine “and settled in for the last trip of his life.” He lost consciousness at some point and drowned. Turner wrote:

A major concern regarding safe use of Ketamine is its very high potential for psychological addiction. A fairly large percentage of those who try Ketamine will consume it non-stop until their supply is exhausted. I’ve seen this in friends I’ve known for many years who are regular psychedelic users and have never before had problems controlling their drug consumption. And I’ve seen the lives of several people who developed an addiction to Ketamine take downward turns. After about two years of once-per-week Ketamine use I even found that I had developed an addiction…Amongst those I know who use Ketamine, I’ve seen very few who can use it in a balanced manner if they have access to it…One of the most remarkable things I experienced in becoming aware of and breaking my Ketamine addiction was the intervention of…[psilocybian mushrooms and DMT]. The DMT provided insights into the negative effects Ketamine was having on my life: a reduction in ambition; a reduction in healthy mortal fears, such as the fear of death; as well as a reluctance to confront fears or difficult tasks and situations directly. Frequent use of Ketamine can lure one as an escape since a blissful and fantastic state of fearless, disembodied consciousness is so easily available.

For more discussion of ketamine and its use as a treatment for depression, see: “Ketamine Desperation,” “Family Likeness in Depression Drugs?”, “Ketamine to the Rescue?”, “Falling Down the K-Hole.”

Although ketamine is a generic drug, esketamine (C13H18CINO) is a patented knock-off of ketamine (C13H16CINO) by Janssen Pharmaceuticals, a division of Johnson & Johnson. In August of 2016 esketamine was granted its second designation by the FDA as a Breakthrough Therapy for treating major depression with an imminent risk of suicide. A Breakthrough Therapy Designation expedites the development process of a drug when it demonstrates the potential for substantial improvement over existing therapies of if it for life-threatening conditions.

Esketamine is an intranasal product, not administered by infusion. Like ketamine, it is a general anaesthetic and a dissociative. It acts primarily as an antagonist with the NMDA receptor, but is also a dopamine reuptake inhibitor. It is more potent and is eliminated more quickly from the body than ketamine. There is also some evidence that it has a more dissociative (hallucinogenic) effect than ketamine.

A study published in Biological Psychiatry by Singh et al. reported the efficacy and safety data from one of the completed FDA trials for esketamine. Science Daily quoted Murray Stein, a deputy editor for Biological Psychiatry, as saying the study showed benefits of the drug over placebo and suggested that the lower of the two doses could be equally effective and also safer. “Though the mechanism of ketamine (and esketamine) antidepressant effects remains unclear, this study clearly demonstrates a benefit, at least in the short term, of this drug for treatment-resistant depression.” Additional clinical trials are testing a wide range of doses to determine the optimal dosing, assessing other possible side effects, and seeking to establish the safety of esketamine in the longer term. Unfortunately, clinical trials don’t last long enough for most drugs to clearly establish an adverse effect like addiction.

There are now two separate drugs in development as fast-acting antidepressants, esketamine and ALKS-5461, whose active ingredients can be reasonably inferred to lead to addiction. As was already mentioned, ketamine is currently classified as a Schedule III controlled substance by the DEA, as is buprenorphine, the active ingredient in ALKS-5461. I hope the FDA will acknowledge the very real risk of addiction with these new molecular entities. The seductive allure of a fast-acting antidepressant could override this concern and lead to their approval as antidepressants without this needed warning. If they are approved, they should at least be classified as Schedule III Controlled Substances.


Ketamine Desperation

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Jeff wants to smile again and know what happiness is like again. He wants to not feel the urge to kill himself again. He has been hospitalized in psychiatric facilities and has taken a variety of antidepressants and mood stabilizers for his bipolar disorder, but nothing worked. He remained employed as a football analyst until the sky fell in on him and he lost his job. “He was suicidal; so overwhelmed with despair, that he couldn’t even leave his house.” He finally found a treatment option at the Ketamine Clinics of Los Angeles. And so goes one of many testimonies of ketamine’s potential as a rapid treatment for depression.

Steven Mandel MD, the President and founder of the Ketamine Clinics of Los Angeles, is an anesthesiologist who uses ketamine to treat patients who are depressed and suicidal. The standard protocol is to give low dose IV infusions of ketamine. It worked for Jeff. He said, “It’s been remarkable.” His wife looked at him and saw the smile on his face and had the biggest smile herself in response. Jeff thought it was immoral to withhold ketamine from the general public. You can watch a four-minute video on Jeff and Dr. Mandel’s treatment here.

Over the last ten to fifteen years, ketamine has been getting a significant amount of research and media attention as a fast-acting treatment for depression. Reporting for The Washington Post, Sara Solovitch quoted Dennis Hartman as saying: “My life will always be divided into the time before that first infusion and the time after.” But the relief is temporary. “Clinical trials at NIMH have found that relapse usually occurs about a week after a single infusion.”  And it can cause intense hallucinations or a kind of lucid dreaming or dissociative state where some patients lose track of time.

NIMH studies suggest the psychedelic experience with ketamine may play a small but significant role in the drug’s efficacy. Steven Levine, a psychiatrist who has treated 500 patients with ketamine said:

With depression, people often feel very isolated and disconnected. Ketamine seems to leave something indelible behind. People use remarkably similar language to describe their experience: “a sense of connection to other people,” “a greater sense of connection to the universe.”

Hartman travels back-and-forth to an anesthesiologist in New York City for his bimonthly infusions of ketamine. He doesn’t consider himself permanently cured, “but now it’s something I can manage.” In 2012 he helped to found an organization called the Ketamine Advocacy Network, a group that screens ketamine clinics, advocates for insurance coverage and spreads the word on the effectiveness of ketamine to treat depression. The problem is the treatment is not FDA approved. And in higher doses, ketamine is known as the club drug, “Special K.” See previous articles, “Ketamine to the Rescue?” and “Falling Down the K-Hole.”

The promise of ketamine as a fast-acting alternative to other antidepressant medications had led to a growth industry for ketamine clinics around the U.S. and multiple pharmaceutical companies doing their own research into developing ketamine derivatives without the side effects. Ketamine is known to interact with the NMDA receptor involved in learning and memory. So scientists assumed the same receptor was responsible for the anti-depressive action of ketamine. STAT News reported this led to more than a dozen companies trying to develop drugs that target the NMDA receptor. “But these drugs haven’t worked as well as ketamine.” AstraZeneca pulled out of developing its own highly touted ketamine derivative, lanicemine in 2013 when it failed to show long-term benefits.

Iadarola et al. published a 2015 article in the journal Therapeutic Advances in Chronic Diseases that reviewed the growing literature on ketamine efficacy as an antidepressant treatment. They confirmed the temporary effects from ketamine; the effects waned after several days in most patients. The authors suggested that after achieving the antidepressant response from ketamine, the effects could be maintained with intermittent doses of ketamine as described above with Dennis Hartman. Pharmaceutical companies aren’t really interested in moving forward with ketamine infusion since the drug has been long off patent and they can’t make a billion dollar profit on a drug that is off patent. So they seek to develop biosimilars to ketamine.

The latest pharma compound to target the NMDA receptor is esketamine, which Janssen Pharmaceuticals, a division of Johnson & Johnson, is developing as an intranasal spray. Johnson & Johnson announced on August 16, 2016 that the FDA granted esketamine a Breakthrough Therapy Designation. This is the second time esketamine has received a Breakthrough Therapy Designation. The first was in November of 2013. The Breakthrough Therapy Designation is to expedite drug development when a drug demonstrates the potential to be a substantial improvement over available therapies for serious or life-threatening conditions.

But the real excitement may still be ahead. The STAT article cited above reported on a new research study published in the May 26th 2016 issue of the journal Nature that demonstrated a derivative of ketamine could achieve the same benefit, but without the side effects. The study was done on mice, so it has a ways to go in drug development before it can compete with esketamine. Dr. Todd Gould, who led the Nature study, suggested the ineffectiveness of previous studies that targeted the NMDA receptor were because they were looking in the wrong place. His research team showed that the effectiveness of ketamine as an antidepressant doesn’t come from the NMDA receptors—at least not in mice.

In the body, ketamine turns into a molecule called hydroxynorketamine — or HNK — and that molecule is actually what treats the depression. Gould’s team also found that HNK does not interact with the NMDA receptor, and it doesn’t have some of the side effects that ketamine does.

Gould said they have a game plan to move forward with the clinical development of HNK. He and his coauthors have filed a patent application for certain uses of HNK. Outside researchers thought the study was well-done science, but they aren’t convinced it’s time to give up on the NMDA receptor. Their drugs targeting the NMDA receptor are further along in drug development. And they are not convinced they are beating a dead horse just yet. STAT reported that Dr. John Krystal, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist who consults for companies developing NMDA-target drugs said: “In my view, it is quite premature to move away from the hypothesis that NMDA receptor antagonists have antidepressant activity based on this single study.” True, but to you rush to bring your ketamine-like drug to market first?

There will still be the same adverse effects as with ketamine, won’t there? And the temporary nature of the mood elevation is still there, isn’t it? The lack of long-term effects led to the AstraZeneca decision to stop development with lanicemine. And esketamine is “an investigational antidepressant medication, for the indication of major depressive disorder with imminent risk for suicide.” That sounds like a short-term use designation.

Uli Hacksell, chief executive of Cerecor, a Baltimore company that has a Phase 2 drug candidate directed at the NMDA pathway, also took issue with the claim that such drugs might be going after the wrong target, and he said that the paper will have no implications for his company’s development plans. “We think that the clinical data we get with our molecule will speak for themselves,” he said.

One outside researcher, Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), was quite supportive of Gould’s research. In his NIH Director’s blog, Collins described the background work leading up to the Gould study. He then said:

 HNK appears to come without the side effects of ketamine. After receiving HNK, mice didn’t show changes in their physical activity, coordination, or sensory perception, as is normally seen after a dose of ketamine. HNK also doesn’t appear to have the same potential for abuse either. When given the option, mice will choose to self-administer ketamine, but not HNK.

The new evidence confirms that HNK doesn’t block NMDA receptors like ketamine does. While there’s more to discover about how HNK works, the evidence reveals an important role for AMPA receptors, another type of glutamate receptor in the brain.

Long-term ketamine users can have irreversible urinary tract and bladder problems. Erowid, a pro-drug website, conducted an online survey that indicated there was a clear correlation between total lifetime use of ketamine and the likelihood of reporting bladder/urinary problems. Now these are health problems that occur with higher doses of ketamine than those used to treat depression. Lower doses over the long-term may not have the same adverse effects. However, these known health concerns should not be overlooked in the rush to bring a new fast-acting antidepressant to market. Ketamine (and its derivatives) to the rescue of depression may not turn out to be the super cure some think it is.


Ketamine to the Rescue?

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Enthusiasm for using ketamine to treat depression has been growing. The interest in the fast action effects of ketamine for treatment-resistant depression began with the publication of a study by Zarate et al. in 2006 that found “Subjects receiving ketamine showed significant improvement in depression compared with subjects receiving placebo within 110 minutes after injection.” Since then, dozens of studies have been done and thousands of people have been treated for depression off label with ketamine. Now the American Psychiatric Association has a ketamine task force and is seriously considering an endorsement of ketamine for treatment-resistant depression.

An NPR story featured psychiatrist David Feifel’s work in treating depression with ketamine. Feifel began treating people with low dose ketamine in 2010. After reading the papers on ketamine, he said he was electrified. People were getting better in hours. “It became clear to me that the future of psychiatry was going to include ketamine, or derivatives of ketamine, or the mechanism of action in some way.”

He said it was hard for him to take the “wait and see” approach suggested by other psychiatrists when people are desperate for help. It didn’t make sense to him. Sara Solovitch, writing for The Washington Post, said some experts are calling it the most significant advance in mental health treatment in fifty years.

Ketamine has been around since the 1960s. It is regularly used as an ER anesthetic because it can rapidly stop pain without affecting vital functions like breathing. It’s often the go-to painkiller for children who come to the ER, say with a broken bone. It’s used in veterinary medicine and is an important tool in burn centers. It’s also been used as date-rape drug, because of some of the self-same properties that make it an attractive ER anesthetic. It will quickly numb and render someone immobile.

A single dose of ketamine costs under $2. The drug is easily available in any pharmacy; and doctors are free to prescribe it for off-label use. But ketamine treatment for depression is expensive. Dr. Feifel charges $500 for an injection and $1,000 for an intravenous infusion. The high cost is attributed by practioners to the medical monitoring and IV equipment required during an infusion.

It isn’t an approved depression treatment, so the costs are out-of-pocket, placing it out-of-reach for many people. But clinics are going up everywhere. A directory found 19 different centers in the US as of the beginning of February, in 2016. Dr. Feifel is afraid something will happen to a depressed patient at one of these unregulated clinics that could set back efforts to make the drug more widely available.

Sara Solovich reported there a growing number of academic medical centers that are offering ketamine treatments off-label for severe depression. These medical centers include: Yale University, the University of California at San Diego, the Mayo Clinic and the Cleveland Clinic. A San Francisco psychiatrist, Alison McInnes, thinks this is the next big thing in psychiatry. Psychiatry has “run out of gas” in trying to help depressed patients. “There is a significant number of people who don’t respond to antidepressants, and we’ve had nothing to offer them other than cognitive behavior therapy, electroshock therapy and transcranial stimulation.”

Dr. McInnes reported a 60% success rate for people with treatment-resistant depression who try ketamine. Dr. McInnes is also a member of the APA’s ketamine task force. She expects the APA to support ketamine treatment in 2016.

Ryan, Marta and Koek did a literature review on ketamine as a treatment for depression in a 2014 issue of the International Journal of Transpersonal Studies,Ketamine and Depression: A Review.”  They acknowledged that the largest challenge with ketamine was extending its benefit for the longer term. Repeated infusions of ketamine showed some promise, but it is far from clear what the optimum dose, frequency and number of infusions should be. “It also worth noting that some patients do not benefit from ketamine, despite multiple treatments.”

Ready for the drawbacks? “Even low-dose ketamine infusion can cause intense hallucinations.” Patients experience a kind of lucid dreaming or dissociative state where they lose track of time and have out-of-body experiences. Many people enjoy it; but others don’t. The treatment effects are often temporary. Dr. Feifel reported one patient whose depression remission would begin to fade within twenty-four hours. With others, the remission can be longer; even weeks. The fleeting remission effect means that many patients return for booster infusions. A business executive from Seattle flies back-and-forth to New York for bimonthly infusions. Sometimes his remission periods will last six months.

Gerald Sanacora, the director of the Yale Depression Research Program, said ketamine infusion is an extremely important treatment. His concern is that people may begin using it as a first-line treatment—before CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) or antidepressants like Prozac. “Maybe someday it will be a first-line treatment. But we’re not there yet.”

It’s a medication that can have big changes in heart rate and blood pressure. There are so many unknowns, I’m not sure it should be used more widely till we understand its long-term benefits and risks.

There isn’t a registry yet for tracking ketamine patients treated for depression. So the number of people treated, the frequency of those treatments, the dosage levels, follow up care—and importantly—adverse effects from ketamine treatment aren’t known. Carlos Zarate, the NIMH’s chief of neurobiology and treatment of mood disorders, said: “We clearly need more standardization in its use.”  In his opinion, it should still be sued in a research setting or a highly specialized clinic.

There also seems to be a turf war or sorts brewing. Ketamine was once almost exclusively a drug known to anesthesiologists. Psychiatrists are now saying that with the use of ketamine for depression growing, it should be left for psychiatrists to prescribe. David Feifel said:

The bottom line is you’re treating depression. . . . And this isn’t garden-variety depression. The people coming in for ketamine are people who have the toughest, potentially most dangerous depressions. I think it’s a disaster if anesthesiologists feel competent to monitor these patients. Many of them have bipolar disorder and are in danger of becoming manic. My question [to anesthesiologists] is: “Do you feel comfortable that you can pick up mania?”

Six of the providers in the above-linked directory are specialists in anesthesiology. Six are psychiatric specialists. The rest are a mixture of specialists in emergency medicine, neurology, internal medicine and even family medicine. Enrique Abreu, A Portland Oregon anesthesiologist who began treating depressed patients with ketamine in 2012, said: “Most anesthesiologists don’t do mental health, and there’s no way a psychiatrist feels comfortable putting an IV in someone’s arm.”

Ketamine in larger doses than are being used in the above discussed depression research is a club drug known as “Special K,” “K,” of Ket.” It is a Schedule III Controlled Substance, meaning it is classified as having an addictive potential. Current depression research has not indicated dependence as an adverse effect, likely because of the low doses currently being used. When used with other sedating drugs like alcohol, the potential of slowing or shutting down the central nervous system are increased. And it is possible to overdose on ketamine. While some clinicians like Drs. Feifel and McInnes would like to see ketamine treatment revolutionize the psychiatric treatment of depression, caution in waiting for the results of further research seems advisable.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that will happen. Psychiatric treatment of depression is in crisis. Even the articles and researchers cited here seemed to acknowledge this. Dr. McInnes said psychiatry has “run out of gas” in trying to help depressed patients. Dr. Fiefel said he found it hard to “wait and see” what further research found regarding ketamine, when so many people were desperate for help.

Pharmaceutical companies stopped doing research into new antidepressants. The chemical imbalance theory of depression is now referred to as more of an urban myth than a true description. Pharma and psychiatry need an antidepressant savior and it seems they hope it will be ketamine.


Family Likeness in Depression Drugs?

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© Brijith Vijayan |123RF.com

Ketamine is the new antidepressant darling, reportedly with relief in as little as 2 hours. In a previous article, “Falling Down the K-Hole,” I wrote about the use and potential problems of ketamine to treat depression. But as described below, there continues to be more to the ketamine family antidepressant story. There has also been an interest in developing ketamine-like substances, supposedly without the negative side effects. There are even ketamine treatment centers available, although insurance companies won’t pay for the treatment.

Ketamine Treatment Centers of Princeton promote ketamine to treat major depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, PTSD and OCD. NY Ketamine Infusions offers ketamine infusion therapy to treat depression and chronic pain. One center said the potential for addiction is supposed to be minimized by administering ketamine in low doses in a medical setting, with infrequent dosing and no access of ketamine at home. Pause here for a minute and read between the lines of that last sentence before reading further.

Karl Jansen, a British psychiatrist and one of the world’s leading experts on ketamine, wrote Ketamine: Dreams and Realities. His work is a balanced pros-and-cons look at ketamine. He described multiple cases of ketamine addiction, stating: “Some users wish to return again and again, attempting to go further out and further in.” He indicated that tolerance is rapid and marked; and the ability to remember the experience fades. Yet there is little evidence of physical dependence on the drug. A few users will continue to take the drug for its cocaine-like effects, its calming effects, or its potential relief from anxiety, depression and craving. The fading of the psychedelic effects can lead to using higher doses of ketamine in order to resume its dissociation experience.

But there have been reports of ketamine psychosis. A 1994 study in the Archives of General Psychiatry (now JAMA Psychiatry) reported that ketamine produced behaviors similar to the symptoms of schizophrenia; and induced alterations in perception and symptoms similar to dissociative states. Jansen said:

Sometimes, ketamine can produce certain effects resembling psychosis. These effects can take a variety of forms. For example, the user may appear to be in a trance. Their eyes may move from side to side without seeing the external world. Limbs can move in strange ways and into bizarre postures. Despite an outward appearance of being “switched off” in some way, interviewing the person afterwards may show that the mind was staging an intense inner drama. While these people do not usually spring into action as may be seen in catatonic schizophrenia, they can suddenly sit up on the bed, speak a short phrase, and then lie down again without actually having “come ‘round.” Some people regard the odd movements and postures as a form of yoga and therapeutic bodywork. The “traveler’s tales” on their return, are often very different from the accounts typically linked with schizophrenia. Many users are absolutely convinced that their ketamine experiences were real.

Ketamine was first synthesized in 1962 by a Parke Davis pharmacist; patented in 1963; and found to be a useful anesthetic in 1965, the year it also became known as a potent psychedelic. Parke Davis patented it as an anesthetic in 1966. In the late 1960s, it was first used as a field anesthetic during the Vietnam War. It is also on the WHO list of essential medicines for a health system. It was classified as a Schedule III controlled substance in 1999.

There are reports of ketamine-related fatalities, but ketamine as the sole cause of death is rare. There have been a few reports, like this 2004 article in the Journal of Analytical Toxicology, where two men apparently died from ketamine intoxication. In 2002, an article in the International Journal of Legal Medicine reported that an EMT was found dead by his girlfriend as a result of a fatal combination of ketamine and suffocation during autoeroticism.

D.M. Turner, in The Essential Psychedelic Guide, wrote that a major concern with the safe use of ketamine was its very high potential for psychological addiction. He said that he knew several regular psychedelic drug users who never had problems controlling their use. But they would consume ketamine non-stop until their supply was exhausted. “I’ve seen very few who can use it in a balanced manner if they have access to it.” Turner’s death by drowning in 1996 was ketamine-related.

In a 2014 animal study, Gideons et al. compared the effectiveness of ketamine to another NMDA receptor antagonist, memtamine. Despite their similar potency as NMDAR antagonists, memtamine does not exert rapid antidepressant effects. Their study confirmed previous research showing this difference between ketamine and memtamine. They also discovered some differential functional effects between the two drugs that provided insight into why ketamine and not memtamine has a rapid antidepressant action.

Sanacora and Schatzberg said in their 2015 article in Neuropsychopharmacology that there was now incontrovertible evidence that single dose intravenous ketamine was associated with an improvement in depressive symptoms that could last several days. However, the actual mechanisms at work to produce the effect remained unclear. Conventional wisdom suggested that the effects of ketamine on the NMDA receptor produced the antidepressant effect. Other studies have shown several drugs that act as NMDAR antagonists with antidepressant-like effects. They also acknowledged that ketamine can produce dissociation and psychosis.

Overall, the combined data from preclinical and clinical studies using a variety of different NMDAR modulating drugs provide generally consistent evidence that antidepressant effects are associated with NMDAR antagonism, and that this is probably the primary mechanism through which ketamine is generating its antidepressant effects.

A molecular cousin to ketamine, GLYX-13 (Rapastinel), has been shown to induce antidepressant results similar to ketamine without the side effects of hallucinations, excessive sleepiness and substance abuse behavior. A study by Joseph Moskal, a molecular neurobiologist at Northwestern University, showed that GLYX-13 and ketamine produce rapid acting antidepressant-like effects in rats that lasted for 24 hours. Moskal is the Founder and Chief Scientific Officer for Naurex, the pharmaceutical company developing Rapastinel.

In February of 2014, the FDA granted fast track status to Rapastinel. Naurex, reported that Phase 2 clinical studies showed patients with major depression had a significant reduction of depressive symptoms within two hours that lasted seven days with a single dose. Repeated dosing achieved a clinically meaningful reduction in depressive symptoms that lasted ten weeks after the last drug dose. Naurex expects to begin Phase 3 clinical trials in 2015. Clinical trails are now recruiting participants to assess the effects of GLYX-13 on individuals with OCD and learning and memory in both healthy individuals and those diagnosed with Schizophrenia of Schizoaffective Disorder.

Johnson & Johnson is developing esketamine, another ketamine knock-off, and hopes to seek FDA approval in 2018. But Clinical Trails.gov, accessed in June of 2015, indicated the study for estketamine was not recruiting participants yet. Doctor Sanacara was quoted in an NPR story as saying: “I think it’s highly probable that we’ll see some version of one of these treatment being approved in the relatively near future . . . In my mind it is the most exciting development in mood disorder treatment in the last 50 years.” Sanacora has done consulting work for both Naurex and Johnson & Johnson.

The rhetoric on the clinical trials through Phase 2 for Rapastinel and esketamine sounds promising, but let’s take a wait-and-see attitude. Their molecular cousin, ketamine, has some seriously bad side effects. One question to be asked is whether or not these medications will be classified as controlled substances, as ketamine is. I think we’ll need to see whether, despite all the assurances, Rapastinel and esketamine act out just like their cousin. Like human families, bad behavior runs in pharmaceutical families.


Falling Down the K-Hole

Over the past few years, there has been an increased interest in using ketamine to treat depression and other psychiatric disorders, such as PTSD. It is fast acting relief for symptoms of both depression and PTSD. For depression, it is effective within two hours and was reported to help a greater proportion of individuals than traditional antidepressants.  Sounds like there is tremendous potential here, right? Maybe.

A 2006 study by lead author Carlos Zarate and other researchers found that subjects receiving a single dose of ketamine “showed significant improvement in depression” within 110 minutes after injection. “Robust and rapid antidepressant effects resulted from a single intravenous dose of [ketamine]; onset occurred within 2 hours postinfusion and continued to remain significant for 1 week.” However,  it was reported by Franz Vallenweider and Michael Kometer that: “all but 2 of the patients relapsed within 2 weeks after a single dose of ketamine.”

A 2011 study (and here) confirmed the alleviation of major depressive symptoms within two hours from a single, low-dose of ketamine. Its effects lasted up to two weeks. The researchers suggested that ketamine appeared to work so quickly by increasing the synthesis of BDNF, or brain-derived neurotropic factor. The increase in BDNF is caused by ketamine deactivating a chemical that normally suppresses BDNF production. “BDNF is a nerve factor that helps brain cells grow and develop new neurons.”

A 2012 study by lead author Matthew Sanjay and others reviewed the emerging literature on the potential rapid-onset antidepressant properties of ketamine. They cited data from a 2009 study that ketamine was associated with “rapid reductions in explicit and implicit suicidal cognitions within the first 24 hours.” They also noted a report from the NIMH where patients previously non-responsive to ECT (electro convulsive therapy) “showed significant improvement in depressive symptoms.”

There were acute impairment of working, episodic and semantic memory, but it did not effect the retrieval of previously learned information. The acute impairments were also temporary. There were no residual deficits found 3 days after drug administration. The Sanjay study concluded that enthusiasm for the early ketamine studies should be tempered by concerns for the validity of these studies; that the antidepressant action is short lived; and uncertainty regarding its safety with a depressed population. “Accordingly, ketamine therapy remains a highly experimental treatment approach for MDD and adoption in psychiatric practice settings at this time is premature.”

Another 2012 article, “Ketamine for Depression: Where Do We Go from Here?” said that while adverse effects had generally been mild, some patients experienced brief changes in blood pressure, heart rate, or respiration. They supported further research of ketamine to treat mood disorders. “However, given the paucity of randomized controlled trials, lack of an active placebo, limited data on long-term outcomes, and potential risks, ketamine administration is not recommended outside of the hospital setting.”

A 2013 study reported in the American Journal of Psychiatry was a randomized controlled study. Ketamine again demonstrated rapid antidepressant effects. It added further support to studies showing that NMDA receptor modulation as a potential mechanism for “accelerated improvement in severe and chronic forms of depression.” Reservations on its use in clinical practice were again expressed because of its short action and safety concerns.

Ketamine is not a new drug. It was developed in 1962 by Parke-Davis and is used as an anesthetic in human and veterinary medicine, usually in combination with another sedative drug. It has been used for several decades as a recreational drug under nicknames such as “Special K,” “K” or “Ket.” It makes users feel disassociated or disconnected from their body and can cause hallucinations. The user can feel sleepy, sluggish, confused or clumsy. They may babble, appear drunk, or have trouble remembering who they are.

It comes as a clear liquid and a white or off-white powder. It can be injected, mixed in a drink as a date-rape drug or sprinkled on tobacco or marijuana and smoked.  It is virtually tasteless and causes a person to become disoriented, confused, suggestible, easily manipulated and compliant.

The victim is usually compliant, suggestible, and shows no overt resistance. As a result they can be easily led into a private setting and usually do not resist whatever is done to them. When given in a sufficient dose the victim has no memory of what happened. On the street this period of dissociated amnesia is called ‘being stuck in the K hole.’

The K-hole state can mimic catatonic schizophrenia, out-of-body experiences or near-death experiences. Since it is an anesthetic drug, ketamine could cause vomiting with its use. And “eating or drinking before taking the drug increases the risk of choking on one’s own vomit.” It is addictive, classified as a Schedule III drug by the DEA. Taken with other sedating drugs like alcohol, the effects of slowing or shutting down the central nervous system are increased. It is possible to overdose on it.

The 2014 Global Synthetic Drugs Assessment reported that ketamine is widely misused in East and South-East Asia; more than in the Americas and Europe. “Extensive ketamine use has also been reported in Brunei Darussalam, India, Myanmar and Singapore.” Between 2008 and 2011, 60% of global ketamine seizures occurred in mainland China and Hong Kong.

In “A Word to the Wise About Ketamine,” Alan Schatzberg noted that the data on ketamine as an antidepressant is still relatively limited. He said that without more data on what ketamine can do clinically, and knowing it can be a drug of abuse, “it is difficult to argue that patients should receive an acute trial of ketamine for refractory depression.” Waiting until there was greater understanding about its effects and risks was his recommendation. Although the recent studies are exciting and open up new avenues for depression research, “until we know more, clinicians should be wary about embarking on a slippery ketamine slope.”

The almost unbridled enthusiasm over the potential of ketamine to treat depression needs to be reined in. We don’t want to find ourselves “falling down the k-hole” instead of exploring ketamine’s potential to treat depression.