Category Archives: Esketamine

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Ketamine Study Reveals How to Make It an Even Better Depression Treatment

In early March, the FDA approved a nasal spray for depression based on ketamine, a substance once known only as a rave drug. Despite its reputation, ketamine is so promising as an anti-depressant that it will soon be available in licensed clinics throughout the country. A study published in Science on Thursday proposes the new treatment can be made even better.

In their paper, a team of scientists at Weill Cornell’s Medicine’s Feil Family Brain and Mind Research Institute show that ketamine can help the brain reform synapses, crucial connections between neurons, that can alleviate depressive symptoms. Ketamine is already famous for working quickly to relieve depressive symptoms — within days or hours — co-author Conor Liston, Ph.D., tells Inverse, but maintaining those crucial connections is key to extending its effects.

“Our study shows that the formation of new connections (synapses) between brain cells is required for sustaining ketamine’s antidepressant effects in the days after treatment,” says Liston, also professor of neuroscience at Weill Cornell. “Ketamine is an exciting new treatment for depression that differs from drugs like SSRIs in that it relieves symptoms rapidly. However, those effects are not always sustained.”

upset, depressed
Ketamine-based nasal spray is a new FDA-licensed drug for treatment-resistant depression.

Growing Back Dendritic Spines

In a mouse model, Liston and his co-authors demonstrated that doses of ketamine helped mouse brains regrow dendritic spines, small protrusions on neurons that help them pick up signals rom other cells that, crucially, degrade during exposure to chronic stress. These dendritic spines are a key part of synapse formation.

The degradation of these spines is not a perfect analog to human depression, but humans have them as well, and Liston points out that some of the most important features of depression in humans are also present in chronically stressed mice.

To create depression-like conditions, the team degraded the dendritic spines in their mice using stress hormones. Then, they gave one group a dose of ketamine, which they expected to have anti-depressive effects.

dendritic spine
A dendritic spine helps form a synapse — a connection to another neuron.

The dose of ketamine not only changed the mice’s behavior — they tried harder to escape their cages — it also helped reform the dendritic spines in their brains. Interestingly, the ketamine didn’t form random dendritic spines but actually seemed to replace the old ones that had been degraded by constant stress. Of the new spines formed, 47.7 percent grew within two micrometers of where the old ones once were.

Why Dendritic Spines Are Important

The new dendritic spines serve an important purpose in the mouse brains. Within three hours of treatment, previously damaged circuits in the prefrontal cortex were starting to come back online, but this happened before new synapses form. At the end of the experiment, an estimated 20.4 to 31.0 percent of the lost synapses were restored after the mice took ketamine.

The fact that the circuits were restored before the synapses reformed suggests that ketamine jump-starts a two-step process that fights depression. The first step is the rapid anti-depressant effect that is seen in so many studies. The second step — regrowing the spines and restoring synapses — occurs more slowly, which means it’s the one scientists should focus on if they’re looking to make ketamine’s effects on depression last longer, Liston says.

When Liston used blue light to artificially remove the newly grown spines in a follow-up experiment, the mice relapsed into depressive symptoms. It suggested that maintaining these dendritic spines is important in keeping depression at bay.

“Our results suggest that interventions aimed at enhancing the survival of newly formed connections in prefrontal brain circuits could be useful for augmenting ketamine’s antidepressant effects by increasing their durability in the days and weeks after treatments.”

The FDA’s approval of a ketamine-based drug to treat depression was groundbreaking in itself, especially since it works differently than other anti-depressant drugs. But just because it’s been approved doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to improve it. Depression can be alleviated with ketamine, but for now the illness constantly threatens individuals with remission. Preventing the potential for a relapse with the promise of longer-lasting effects is one way to make this already remarkable drug even more helpful.

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long term affect lasix use INTRODUCTION

Depression is an episodic form of mental illness, yet the circuit-level mechanisms driving the induction, remission, and recurrence of depressive episodes over time are not well understood. Ketamine relieves depressive symptoms rapidly, providing an opportunity to study the neurobiological substrates of transitions from depression to remission and to test whether mechanisms that induce antidepressant effects acutely are distinct from those that sustain them.

viagra drug use RATIONALE

Contrasting changes in dendritic spine density in prefrontal cortical pyramidal cells have been associated with the emergence of depression-related behaviors in chronic stress models and with ketamine’s antidepressant effects. But whether and how dendritic spine remodeling is causally involved, or whether it is merely correlated with these effects, is unclear. To answer these questions, we used two-photon imaging to study how chronic stress and ketamine affect dendritic spine remodeling and neuronal activity dynamics in the living prefrontal cortex (PFC), as well as a recently developed optogenetic tool to manipulate the survival of newly formed spines after ketamine treatment.

best priceer propecia RESULTS

The induction of depression-related behavior in multiple chronic stress models was associated with targeted, branch-specific elimination of postsynaptic dendritic spines and a loss of correlated multicellular ensemble activity in PFC projection neurons. Antidepressant-dose ketamine reversed these effects by selectively rescuing eliminated spines and restoring coordinated activity in multicellular ensembles that predicted motivated escape behavior. Unexpectedly, ketamine’s effects on behavior and ensemble activity preceded its effects on spine formation, indicating that spine formation was not required for inducing these effects acutely. However, individual differences in the restoration of lost spines were correlated with behavior 2 to 7 days after treatment, suggesting that spinogenesis may be important for the long-term maintenance of these effects. To test this, we used a photoactivatable probe to selectively reverse the effects of ketamine on spine formation in the PFC and found that the newly formed spines play a necessary and specific role in sustaining ketamine’s antidepressant effects on motivated escape behavior. By contrast, optically deleting a random subset of spines unrelated to ketamine treatment had no effect on behavior.

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Prefrontal cortical spine formation sustains the remission of specific depression-related behaviors after ketamine treatment by restoring lost spines and rescuing coordinated ensemble activity in PFC microcircuits. Pharmacological and neurostimulatory interventions for enhancing and preserving the rescue of lost synapses may therefore be useful for promoting sustained remission.

Why is ketamine an antidepressant?

A better understanding of the mechanisms underlying the action of antidepressants is urgently needed. Moda-Sava et al. explored a possible mode of action for the drug ketamine, which has recently been shown to help patients recover from depression (see the Perspective by Beyeler). Ketamine rescued behavior in mice that was associated with depression-like phenotypes by selectively reversing stress-induced spine loss and restoring coordinated multicellular ensemble activity in prefrontal microcircuits. The initial induction of ketamine’s antidepressant effect on mouse behavior occurred independently of effects on spine formation. Instead, synaptogenesis in the prefrontal region played a critical role in nourishing these effects over time. Interventions aimed at enhancing the survival of restored synapses may thus be useful for sustaining the behavioral effects of fast-acting antidepressants.

Structured Abstract

INTRODUCTION

Depression is an episodic form of mental illness, yet the circuit-level mechanisms driving the induction, remission, and recurrence of depressive episodes over time are not well understood. Ketamine relieves depressive symptoms rapidly, providing an opportunity to study the neurobiological substrates of transitions from depression to remission and to test whether mechanisms that induce antidepressant effects acutely are distinct from those that sustain them.

RATIONALE

Contrasting changes in dendritic spine density in prefrontal cortical pyramidal cells have been associated with the emergence of depression-related behaviors in chronic stress models and with ketamine’s antidepressant effects. But whether and how dendritic spine remodeling is causally involved, or whether it is merely correlated with these effects, is unclear. To answer these questions, we used two-photon imaging to study how chronic stress and ketamine affect dendritic spine remodeling and neuronal activity dynamics in the living prefrontal cortex (PFC), as well as a recently developed optogenetic tool to manipulate the survival of newly formed spines after ketamine treatment.

RESULTS

The induction of depression-related behavior in multiple chronic stress models was associated with targeted, branch-specific elimination of postsynaptic dendritic spines and a loss of correlated multicellular ensemble activity in PFC projection neurons. Antidepressant-dose ketamine reversed these effects by selectively rescuing eliminated spines and restoring coordinated activity in multicellular ensembles that predicted motivated escape behavior. Unexpectedly, ketamine’s effects on behavior and ensemble activity preceded its effects on spine formation, indicating that spine formation was not required for inducing these effects acutely. However, individual differences in the restoration of lost spines were correlated with behavior 2 to 7 days after treatment, suggesting that spinogenesis may be important for the long-term maintenance of these effects. To test this, we used a photoactivatable probe to selectively reverse the effects of ketamine on spine formation in the PFC and found that the newly formed spines play a necessary and specific role in sustaining ketamine’s antidepressant effects on motivated escape behavior. By contrast, optically deleting a random subset of spines unrelated to ketamine treatment had no effect on behavior.

CONCLUSION

Prefrontal cortical spine formation sustains the remission of specific depression-related behaviors after ketamine treatment by restoring lost spines and rescuing coordinated ensemble activity in PFC microcircuits. Pharmacological and neurostimulatory interventions for enhancing and preserving the rescue of lost synapses may therefore be useful for promoting sustained remission.



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Long known as a party drug, ketamine now used for depression, but concerns remain

A decades-old anesthetic made notorious as a party drug in the 1980s is resurfacing as a potential “game-changing” treatment for severe depression, patients and psychiatrists say, but they remain wary about potential long-term problems.

The Food and Drug Administration earlier this month OKd use of Spravato for patients with depression who have not benefited from other currently available medications. Spravato, the brand name given to the drug esketamine, is a molecule derived from ketamine — known as Special K on the club scene.

Ketamine has been shown in some studies to be useful for treating a wide variety of neurological disorders including depression. Regular, longtime use of it isn’t well understood, psychiatrists say, but the need for a new drug to treat depression is so great that the FDA put Spravato on a fast-track course for approval.

The drug likely will be commercially available in a few weeks, and patients already are requesting it. Restrictions around its use, though — the drug must be administered in a doctor’s office by providers who are certified with the company making it — mean it may be months before it’s widely available, and longer than that before insurers start paying for it.

“I don’t think we know at this point how effective it’s going to be,” said Dr. Craig Nelson, a psychiatrist at the UCSF Depression Center. “There have been a number of studies of ketamine, sometimes showing effects in people who were resistant to other drugs. If we can treat a different group of people, it would be a great advantage.”

Ketamine was developed in the 1960s as a surgical anesthetic for people and animals. The drug can cause hallucinations and a feeling of “dissociation” or unreality, and in the 1980s it took off as a party drug among people seeking those effects. It remained a common anesthetic, though, and in the early 2000s doctors began to notice a connection between ketamine and relief from symptoms of depression and other mood disorders.

Spravato is delivered by nasal spray, which patients give themselves in a doctor’s office. Patients must be monitored while they get the drug and for two hours after to make sure they don’t suffer immediate complications. At the start, patients will get the nasal spray twice a week for four weeks, then taper to regular boosters every few weeks for an indefinite period of time.

Studies of ketamine — and specifically of Spravato — have produced encouraging but inconsistent results. Psychiatrists say that, like most other antidepressants, the drug probably won’t help everyone with difficult-to-treat depression. But there likely will be a subset of patients who get substantial benefits, and that alone may make it an incredible new tool.

About 16 million Americans experience depression every year, and roughly a quarter of them get no benefit from antidepressants on the market. Thought scientists haven’t determined exactly how ketamine works on the brains of people with depression or other mood disorders, it appears to take a different path of attack than any drug already available. That means that people who don’t respond to other antidepressants may find this one works for them.

But a concern among some psychiatrists is that studies have suggested that ketamine may affect the same receptors in the brain that respond to opioids. Ketamine and its derivations may then put patients at risk of addiction — but research so far hasn’t explored that kind of long-term effect.

“There might be some potential problems if you used it too aggressively,” said Dr. Alan Schatzberg, director of the Stanford Mood Disorders Center, who led the research that identified a connection with opioid receptors. “The issue is not so much the short-term use, it’s the repetitive use, and the use over time, as to whether there are going to be untoward consequences.

“It would be hard for me to recommend the use of this drug for chronically depressed people without knowing what the endgame is here,” he added.

Dr. Carolyn Rodriguez, a Stanford psychiatrist who was part of the studies of ketamine and opioid receptors, said she shares Schatzberg’s concerns. But she’s been studying the use of ketamine to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder, and for some patients the results have been so remarkable that the benefits may exceed the risks.

“When I gave ketamine to my first patient, I nearly fell off my chair. Somebody said it was like a vacation from their OCD, and I was just, ‘Wow, this is really possible,’” Rodriguez said. “I want to make sure patients have their eyes wide open. I hope (the FDA approval) spurs more research, so we can really inform consumers.”

Though the new nasal spray is the first formal FDA approval of a ketamine-derived drug, psychiatrists have been using the generic anesthetic for years to study its effect on depression and other mood disorders.

In recent years, clinics have opened around the country offering intravenous infusions of ketamine to people with hard-to-treat depression and other problems. These treatments aren’t specifically FDA-approved but are allowed as off-label use of ketamine. The clinics have faced skepticism from some traditional psychiatrists, but there’s a growing ream of anecdotal evidence that the ketamine IVs work — for some people.

Aptos resident Mary, who suffers from depression and other mood disorders and asked that her last name not be used to protect her privacy, said the already available antidepressants weren’t keeping her symptoms at bay, and she frequently felt “one step away from the abyss.” When she first heard about ketamine, from a support group for people with depression and other mood disorders, she was hesitant.

“I kind of hemmed and hawed, because I’d heard that K was a street drug,” Mary said. “But then I said, ‘What do I have to lose?’ So I went and did it.”

The results were quick: Within four days, “the cloud had lifted,” she said. More than a year later, she is still feeling good with regular infusions every three or four weeks. During the ketamine infusion, Mary said she’ll feel the dissociation, which she described as feeling like she’s viewing the world around her as though it were a movie and not her own life.

She said she’s pleased the FDA approved Spravato, though she hasn’t decided whether she’ll switch from the IV ketamine to the nasal spray. She hopes that the FDA approval will give some validation to ketamine and encourage others to try it.

Mary gets her infusions at Palo Alto Mind Body, where Dr. M Rameen Ghorieshi started offering ketamine two years ago. He’s certified with the maker of Spravato — Janssen Pharmaceuticals, a branch of Johnson and Johnson — to provide the drug, though he doesn’t know when he’ll actually start giving the nasal spray to patients.

Ghorieshi said that although he’s been offering IV ketamine for more than two years, he shares his colleagues’ wariness of the long-term effects of regular use of the drug. He hopes FDA approval will encourage further research.

“At this point we’ve done 1,000 infusions. The outcomes have exceeded my own expectations,” Ghorieshi said. “But anecdotes are not clinical trials. I approach this very cautiously. What I don’t want is 20 or 30 years from now to look back and say, ‘What did we do?’”



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VA to offer new ketamine-based nasal spray to help combat depression

The newest FDA-approved medication to treat severe depression, a nasal spray based on the anesthetic (and misused hallucinogenic party drug) ketamine, will soon be available to veterans treated within the Department of Veterans Affairs.

In a move that may help thousands of former service members with depression that has not improved with other treatments, VA officials announced Tuesday that the department’s doctors are now authorized to prescribe Spravato, the brand name for esketamine, a molecular variation of ketamine.

The decision to offer a drug hailed by many as a breakthrough in treatment for its speedy results — often relieving symptoms in hours and days, not weeks — shows the VA’s “commitment to seek new ways to provide the best health care available for our nation’s veterans,” Secretary Robert Wilkie said in a release.

“We’re pleased to be able to expand options for Veterans with depression who have not responded to other treatments,” Wilkie added.

The treatment will be available to veterans based on a physician’s assessment and only will be administered to patients who have tried at least two antidepressant medications and continue to have symptoms of major depressive disorder.

An estimated 16 million Americans have had at least one major episode of depression, and of those, 1 in 3 are considered treatment-resistant. In the veteran population of 20 million, the estimated diagnosis rate of depression is 14 percent — up to 2.8 million veterans. Between one-third and half of those veterans may be treatment-resistant.

The lack of effective medications for difficult-to-treat patients prompted the Food and Drug Administration to place esketamine on a fast track, expediting its review of the drug to ensure that it went to patent as soon as safely possible, according to administration officials.

“Controlled clinical trials that studied the safety and efficacy of this drug, along with careful review through the FDA’s drug approval process, including a robust discussion with our external advisory committees, were important in our decision to approve this treatment,” said Dr. Tiffany Farchione, acting director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research Division of Psychiatry Products, in a release.

As with any other medication, there are risks. Spravato carries a boxed warning for side effects that include misuse, the reason it is administered under a doctor’s supervision. The list of side effects includes sedation and blood pressure spikes and disassociation, such as feelings of physical paralysis and out-of-body experiences. It also can cause suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

Acknowledging the dangers, FDA made esketamine available only through a restricted distribution system.

A veteran prescribed Spravato would inhale the nasal spray at a medical facility while under supervision of a medical provider, and would be monitored for at least two hours after receiving the dose. A typical prescription includes twice-weekly doses the first month, followed by a single dose weekly or biweekly as needed. Spravato cannot be dispensed for home use.

Spravato is made by Janssen Pharmaceuticals, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson. It is the first major antidepressant medication to hit the market in 30 years.



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Ketamine Seems to Ease Depression. We’ll Soon See What Else It Does.

Clinical trials are not enough to prove any drug is safe and effective – especially one that could be as widely used as Johnson & Johnson’s depression drug esketamine, a slightly altered form of the street drug ketamine. The FDA approval process is a balancing act, weighing safety and efficacy testing against the need to get potentially life-saving drugs out as soon as possible.

An advisory panel to the FDA decided this month that the benefits outweigh the risks, and approval is expected soon. But scientists who study depression say there’s a lot more to learn about esketamine’s long-term effects.

While best known as a recreational drug, ketamine has been used since the 1970s as an anesthetic, in doses much higher than what’s likely to be given to depression patients. The trials so far seem to show that the drug is not highly addictive, according to a story in the medical website STAT. But time will tell.

The most promising clinical trials followed people whose depression had been resistant to conventional therapy. Fifty percent of patients improved when given conventional therapy plus a placebo, as compared to 70 percent who got conventional therapy and esketamine.

Taking the drug will be a lot more complicated than taking Prozac. It’s been formulated so that it can be delivered as a nasal spray, but people have to get the drug at a doctor’s office, and they won’t be allowed to drive for at least 24 hours, said Gerard Sanacora, a Yale University psychiatrist who has been involved in the clinical trials.

He said he believes there’s potential for benefit, because the drug works for some people who get no relief from conventional treatments and because works faster, which might even prevent suicide. But there’s a lot more to learn about the drug’s potential long-term consequences. So far it looks like people will get two treatments a week to start, then one for maintenance. But scientists don’t know whether it can be tapered down further, or discontinued, and whether there’s a risk for relapse, he said.

Sanacora said that ketamine is based on a very different model of how depression works. Standard therapy is based on the principle that depression is a chemical imbalance involving the transmitting chemical serotonin. But an alternative view started to take shape in the 1990s that depression was more of a problem with the connections between neurons, triggered by chronic stress and mediated by something called the glutaminergic system.

Because ketamine interacts with this system, researchers started testing it as a depression drug. Although it seems effective, there’s still no agreement on how depression actually works – and there is some concern that it might work very differently in different patients.

Ketamine can affect cardiovascular health, and in the short term can cause patients to lose their sense of their bodies’ position in space – the sense of proprioception. They sometimes feel their arms are floating.

That hasn’t stopped people from flocking to clinics to get treated with IV ketamine infusions for depression and other problems. This is legal because the drug is approved for anesthesia, and prescribers can use it off-label for other purposes. An investigation by the medical website STAT raised concerns that clinic staff didn’t have the necessary expertise, and there was considerable marketing hype in many cases. The infusions cost between $350 and $1,000 each, and can go on for five or six treatments.

Another red flag popped up last week when the Boston Globe ran a storyabout three women who claim to have been sexually abused by psychiatrist Keith Ablow – a frequent commentator for Fox News. The Globe reported that Ablow was treating the women with ketamine, and one expert cited in the lawsuits said a patient had become “very dependent on this medication and dependent on Dr. Ablow to supply it.”

Ablow’s Twitter feed is full of positive stories about ketamine in places such as Reader’s Digest, followed by a phone number to call for a “free ketamine screening.” The allegations illustration that it’s not just patients that will need to be tracked for abuse, but the doctors as well.

On the positive side, FDA approval would give patients who want the drug a standardized treatment that would be covered by many insurance plans. Approval also creates an opportunity to collect data on longer-term use. (An earlier column exploring the promise of big data in medicine points out that clinical trials are often not long-running enough or big enough to catch even deadly side effects.)

Yale’s Sanacora thinks of the next series of trials as Phase 4. Sanacora also brought up what he poignantly called the “Flowers for Algernon” effect, referring to the short story in which the main character, Charlie Gordon, is treated for an intellectual disability. The treatment works, but eventually wears off, leaving Charlie back where he started. The disappointment makes for a tragic tale. An arc like this would be the last thing depression patients need – though if no other treatment is helping, it might be a risk worth taking.

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Ketamine Works as a Fast-Acting Antidepressant, But the Full Effects Are Still Unknown

Ketamine Works as a Fast-Acting Antidepressant, But the Full Effects Are Still Unknown

etamine leads something of a double life, straddling the line between medical science and party drug. Since it’s invention in the early 1960s, ketamine has enjoyed a quiet existence as a veterinary and pediatric anesthetic given in high doses. But in a second, wilder life, ketamine’s effects at lower doses—a profound sense of dissociation from self and body—became an illicit favorite among psychedelic enthusiasts. Pioneering neuroscientist John Lilly, who famously attempted to facilitate communication between humans and dolphins, used the drug in the late 1970s during experiments in sensory deprivation tanks. By the 1990s, the drug had made its way to the dance floor as “special K.”

More recently, ketamine has taken on a third, wholly unexpected role. Since the early 2000s, the drug has been studied as a uniquely powerful medication for treating severe depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). When given as an intravenous infusion, ketamine can lift symptoms of depression and OCD from patients who fail to respond to common antidepressants like Prozac and even resist treatments like electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).

Exactly how ketamine produces antidepressant effects remains unclear, however. Antidepressants like Prozac are Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) that increase levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain, which is believed to boost mood. Ketamine’s main mechanism of action to produce dissociative anesthetic effects, on the other hand, depends on another neurotransmitter, glutamate.

“The prevailing hypothesis for ketamine’s antidepressant effect is that it blocks a receptor (or docking port) for glutamate,” says Carolyn Rodriguez, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford who has conducted some of the pioneering research into ketamine as an OCD treatment.

However, new research suggests that ketamine’s influence on glutamate receptors, and specifically the NMDA receptor, may not be the sole cause of its antidepressant effects. According to a recent study in the American Journal of Psychiatry by Rodriguez and her Stanford colleagues, ketamine might also activate a third system in the brain: opioid receptors.

Ketamine is known to bind weakly to the mu opioid receptor, acting as an agonist to produce a physiological response at the same site in the brain where narcotics like morphine exert their influence. It’s also known that opioids can have antidepressant effects, says Alan Schatzberg, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford and co-author of the new study.

It never made sense to Schatzberg that ketamine’s antidepressant effects were a result of blocking the glutamate receptors, as attempts to use other glutamate-blocking drugs as antidepressants have largely failed. The Stanford psychiatrist, who has spent his career studying depression, wondered if researchers were unknowingly activating opioid receptors with ketamine.

“You could test this by using an antagonist of the opioid system to see if you blocked the effect in people who are ketamine responders,” he says. “And that’s what we did.”

The researchers enlisted 12 subjects with treatment-resistant depression and gave them either an infusion of ketamine preceded by a placebo, or ketamine preceded by a dose of naltrexone, an opioid receptor blocker. Of those, seven subjects responded to the ketamine with placebo, “and it was very dramatic,” Schatzberg says, with depression lifting by the next day. “But in the other condition, they showed no effect,” suggesting it was the opioid receptor activity, not blocking glutamate receptors, that was responsible.

While opioid blockers prevented ketamine from activating the associated receptors, it did not block the drugs dissociative effects, suggesting dissociation alone won’t affect depression. “It’s not that, ‘hey, we’ll get you a little weird and you’ll get the effect,’” Schatzberg says.

The appeal of ketamine’s use as an antidepressant is clear enough. While more typical antidepressants may require six to eight weeks to produce benefits, ketamine works within hours.

“Our patients are asked to hang in there until the medication and talk therapy takes effect,” says Carlos Zarate, chief of the experimental therapeutics and pathophysiology branch of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) who was not associated with the new study. While waiting for traditional treatments to kick in, patients “may lose their friends or even attempt suicide.”

But the study linking ketamine to opioid activity means an extra dose of caution is required. While ketamine acts quickly, the anti-depressive effects of the drug only last for a few days to a week, meaning repeat doses would be needed in practice. Researchers and clinicians should consider the risk of addiction in long-term use, Schatzberg says. “You’re going to eventually get into some form of tolerance I think, and that’s not good.”

However, the new finding is based on just seven subjects, and it still needs to be replicated by other scientists, says Yale professor of psychiatry Greg Sanacora, who was not involved in the new study. And even if the trial is replicated, it would not prove ketamine’s opioid activity is responsible for its antidepressant effects.

“It doesn’t show that at all,” says Sanacora, who studies glutamate, mood disorders and ketamine. “It shows that the opioid system needs to be functioning in order to get this response.”

Sanacora compares the new study to using antibiotics to treat an ear infection. If you administered an additional drug that blocks absorption of antibiotics in the stomach, you would block treatment of the ear infection, but you wouldn’t conclude that antibiotics fight ear infections through stomach absorption—you just need a normally functioning stomach to allow the antibiotic to do its job. Similarly, opioid receptors might need to be functioning normally for ketamine to produce antidepressant effects, even if opioid activity is not directly responsible for those effects.

Complicating matters further, placebos often cause patients to experience less pain, but opioid blockers like naltrexone have been shown to prevent this response, according to Sanacora. It could be, he suggests, that all the apparatus of the clinic—the nursing staff, the equipment—exerted a placebo effect that is mediated by the brain’s opioid system, and the patients who received naltrexone simply did not respond to that placebo effect

“That’s a very important and powerful tool that is in all of medicine, not just in psychiatry,” Sanacora says. “And we know that the opiate system is involved, to some extent, in that type of response.”

It’s also possible, the researchers note in the paper, that ketamine’s action at the glutamate receptor is still important. “Ketamine acts in three distinct phases—rapid effects, sustained effects and return to baseline,” Rodriguez says. Opioid signaling may turn out to mediate ketamine’s rapid effects, while “the glutamate system may be responsible for the sustaining effects after ketamine is metabolized.”

One interpretation is that ketamine blocks glutamate receptors on neurons that are inhibitory, meaning they signal other neurons to fire fewer signals. By blocking these neurons from firing, ketamine may enhance glutamate activity in the rest of the brain, producing anti-depressive effects that persist after the opioid activity dies down.

“The reality is it’s in a gray zone,” Sanacora says. “This is just one small piece of a very large puzzle or concern that we really need to look at the data in total.”

That data is forthcoming. Results from a Janssen Pharmaceuticals clinical trial using esketamine, an isomer of ketamine, and involving hundreds of subjects will soon become public, according to Sanacora, who has consulted for the company. And at NIMH, Zarate and colleagues are studying hydroxynorketamine, a metabolite of ketamine that may provide the same benefits but without the dissociative side effects

Ketamine Works as a Fast-Acting Antidepressant, But the Full Effects Are Still Unknown

A new study suggests that ketamine activates the brain’s opioid receptors, complicating its use to treat clinical depression

Ketamine Syringe
Ketamine syringe, 10mg held by a healthcare professional. (Peter Cripps / Alamy Stock Photo)

By  Jon KelveySEPTEMBER 11, 2018777110231.1K

Ketamine leads something of a double life, straddling the line between medical science and party drug. Since it’s invention in the early 1960s, ketamine has enjoyed a quiet existence as a veterinary and pediatric anesthetic given in high doses. But in a second, wilder life, ketamine’s effects at lower doses—a profound sense of dissociation from self and body—became an illicit favorite among psychedelic enthusiasts. Pioneering neuroscientist John Lilly, who famously attempted to facilitate communication between humans and dolphins, used the drug in the late 1970s during experiments in sensory deprivation tanks. By the 1990s, the drug had made its way to the dance floor as “special K.”

More recently, ketamine has taken on a third, wholly unexpected role. Since the early 2000s, the drug has been studied as a uniquely powerful medication for treating severe depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). When given as an intravenous infusion, ketamine can lift symptoms of depression and OCD from patients who fail to respond to common antidepressants like Prozac and even resist treatments like electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).

Exactly how ketamine produces antidepressant effects remains unclear, however. Antidepressants like Prozac are Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) that increase levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain, which is believed to boost mood. Ketamine’s main mechanism of action to produce dissociative anesthetic effects, on the other hand, depends on another neurotransmitter, glutamate.

“The prevailing hypothesis for ketamine’s antidepressant effect is that it blocks a receptor (or docking port) for glutamate,” says Carolyn Rodriguez, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford who has conducted some of the pioneering research into ketamine as an OCD treatment.

However, new research suggests that ketamine’s influence on glutamate receptors, and specifically the NMDA receptor, may not be the sole cause of its antidepressant effects. According to a recent study in the American Journal of Psychiatry by Rodriguez and her Stanford colleagues, ketamine might also activate a third system in the brain: opioid receptors.

Ketamine is known to bind weakly to the mu opioid receptor, acting as an agonist to produce a physiological response at the same site in the brain where narcotics like morphine exert their influence. It’s also known that opioids can have antidepressant effects, says Alan Schatzberg, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford and co-author of the new study.

It never made sense to Schatzberg that ketamine’s antidepressant effects were a result of blocking the glutamate receptors, as attempts to use other glutamate-blocking drugs as antidepressants have largely failed. The Stanford psychiatrist, who has spent his career studying depression, wondered if researchers were unknowingly activating opioid receptors with ketamine.

“You could test this by using an antagonist of the opioid system to see if you blocked the effect in people who are ketamine responders,” he says. “And that’s what we did.”

The researchers enlisted 12 subjects with treatment-resistant depression and gave them either an infusion of ketamine preceded by a placebo, or ketamine preceded by a dose of naltrexone, an opioid receptor blocker. Of those, seven subjects responded to the ketamine with placebo, “and it was very dramatic,” Schatzberg says, with depression lifting by the next day. “But in the other condition, they showed no effect,” suggesting it was the opioid receptor activity, not blocking glutamate receptors, that was responsible.

While opioid blockers prevented ketamine from activating the associated receptors, it did not block the drugs dissociative effects, suggesting dissociation alone won’t affect depression. “It’s not that, ‘hey, we’ll get you a little weird and you’ll get the effect,’” Schatzberg says.

The appeal of ketamine’s use as an antidepressant is clear enough. While more typical antidepressants may require six to eight weeks to produce benefits, ketamine works within hours.

“Our patients are asked to hang in there until the medication and talk therapy takes effect,” says Carlos Zarate, chief of the experimental therapeutics and pathophysiology branch of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) who was not associated with the new study. While waiting for traditional treatments to kick in, patients “may lose their friends or even attempt suicide.”

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A treatment that works within 24 hours? “That’s huge.”

A vial of ketamine. The drug is used primarily as an anesthetic but is gaining popularity as an effective antidepressant.
A vial of ketamine. The drug is used primarily as an anesthetic but is gaining popularity as an effective antidepressant. (Wikimedia Commons)

But the study linking ketamine to opioid activity means an extra dose of caution is required. While ketamine acts quickly, the anti-depressive effects of the drug only last for a few days to a week, meaning repeat doses would be needed in practice. Researchers and clinicians should consider the risk of addiction in long-term use, Schatzberg says. “You’re going to eventually get into some form of tolerance I think, and that’s not good.”

However, the new finding is based on just seven subjects, and it still needs to be replicated by other scientists, says Yale professor of psychiatry Greg Sanacora, who was not involved in the new study. And even if the trial is replicated, it would not prove ketamine’s opioid activity is responsible for its antidepressant effects.

“It doesn’t show that at all,” says Sanacora, who studies glutamate, mood disorders and ketamine. “It shows that the opioid system needs to be functioning in order to get this response.”

Sanacora compares the new study to using antibiotics to treat an ear infection. If you administered an additional drug that blocks absorption of antibiotics in the stomach, you would block treatment of the ear infection, but you wouldn’t conclude that antibiotics fight ear infections through stomach absorption—you just need a normally functioning stomach to allow the antibiotic to do its job. Similarly, opioid receptors might need to be functioning normally for ketamine to produce antidepressant effects, even if opioid activity is not directly responsible for those effects.

Complicating matters further, placebos often cause patients to experience less pain, but opioid blockers like naltrexone have been shown to prevent this response, according to Sanacora. It could be, he suggests, that all the apparatus of the clinic—the nursing staff, the equipment—exerted a placebo effect that is mediated by the brain’s opioid system, and the patients who received naltrexone simply did not respond to that placebo effect.

“That’s a very important and powerful tool that is in all of medicine, not just in psychiatry,” Sanacora says. “And we know that the opiate system is involved, to some extent, in that type of response.”

It’s also possible, the researchers note in the paper, that ketamine’s action at the glutamate receptor is still important. “Ketamine acts in three distinct phases—rapid effects, sustained effects and return to baseline,” Rodriguez says. Opioid signaling may turn out to mediate ketamine’s rapid effects, while “the glutamate system may be responsible for the sustaining effects after ketamine is metabolized.”

One interpretation is that ketamine blocks glutamate receptors on neurons that are inhibitory, meaning they signal other neurons to fire fewer signals. By blocking these neurons from firing, ketamine may enhance glutamate activity in the rest of the brain, producing anti-depressive effects that persist after the opioid activity dies down.

“The reality is it’s in a gray zone,” Sanacora says. “This is just one small piece of a very large puzzle or concern that we really need to look at the data in total.”

That data is forthcoming. Results from a Janssen Pharmaceuticals clinical trial using esketamine, an isomer of ketamine, and involving hundreds of subjects will soon become public, according to Sanacora, who has consulted for the company. And at NIMH, Zarate and colleagues are studying hydroxynorketamine, a metabolite of ketamine that may provide the same benefits but without the dissociative side effects.

The ultimate goal of all this research is to find a ketamine-like drug with fewer liabilities, and that aim is bringing researchers back to the fundamentals of science.

“For me, one of the exciting parts of this study is that it suggests that ketamine’s mechanism is complicated, it acts on different receptors beyond glutamate and is the start of this exciting dialogue,” Rodriguez says. “Sometimes great science raises more questions than answers.”









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NOVA Health Recovery | Alexandria, Va 22306 | Call for esketamine and nasal ketamine as well as IV Ketamine for depression, PTSD, anxiety  703-844-0184 < Link

Ketamine Virginia Link

NOVA Health Recovery | Alexandria, Va 22306 | Call for esketamine and nasal ketamine as well as IV Ketamine for depression, PTSD, anxiety  703-844-0184 < Link

Ketamine Virginia Link New depression drug related to ketamine recommended by FDA panel An experimental nasal spray, which has a compound similar to the“club drug” ketamine, has been recommended as a new depression treatment by an advisory panel to the Food and Drug Administration Tuesday. The influential panel voted 14-2 in favor of Johnson & Johnson’s drug esketamine, a treatment developed to treat major depression in patients who have not benefited from at least two different therapies. The panel said the benefits of the nasal spray outweighed the risks. Side effects include dizziness, nausea and an unpleasant feeling of dissociation, according to the company. One member in the panel abstained from voting. Esketamine is a variation of the anesthetic ketamine, which is also abused as a recreational party drug with the street name Special K. Intravenous infusions of ketamine have been shown to help people with severe depression who experience suicidal thoughts, but the researchers expect that the nasal spray will take effect more quickly and be easier to use. “I think esketamine has the potential to be a game-changer in the treatment of depression … I use the term potential because the issues of cost and patient accessibility need to be addressed,” said Walter Dunn, a panel member who voted in favor of the approval The nasal spray acts quickly, showing benefits after four hours. The hope is that the spray can help the 30 percent to 40 percent of patients with major depression who don’t respond to antidepressants, most of which take at least four weeks to take effect. Currently, Eli Lilly’s Symbyax is the only FDA-approved drug for treatment-resistant depression. Major depressive disorder affects over 300 million people globally, and the rate of attempted suicides in people with this condition is about 20-fold higher than that of the general population, according to the company. However, depression is a tricky area of development. Patients in clinical trials often show a big placebo response, masking the efficacy of the drug being tested. The FDA, although not mandated to follow the panel’s recommendation, is expected to announce its decision on esketamine by March 4 blob:https://www.nbcnews.com/7ff5f695-0a1d-45c4-95f5-12627211ac08 New depression drug related to ketamine recommended by FDA panel An experimental nasal spray, which has a compound similar to the“club drug” ketamine, has been recommended as a new depression treatment by an advisory panel to the Food and Drug Administration Tuesday. The influential panel voted 14-2 in favor of Johnson & Johnson’s drug esketamine, a treatment developed to treat major depression in patients who have not benefited from at least two different therapies. The panel said the benefits of the nasal spray outweighed the risks. Side effects include dizziness, nausea and an unpleasant feeling of dissociation, according to the company. One member in the panel abstained from voting. Esketamine is a variation of the anesthetic ketamine, which is also abused as a recreational party drug with the street name Special K. Intravenous infusions of ketamine have been shown to help people with severe depression who experience suicidal thoughts, but the researchers expect that the nasal spray will take effect more quickly and be easier to use. “I think esketamine has the potential to be a game-changer in the treatment of depression … I use the term potential because the issues of cost and patient accessibility need to be addressed,” said Walter Dunn, a panel member who voted in favor of the approval The nasal spray acts quickly, showing benefits after four hours. The hope is that the spray can help the 30 percent to 40 percent of patients with major depression who don’t respond to antidepressants, most of which take at least four weeks to take effect. Currently, Eli Lilly’s Symbyax is the only FDA-approved drug for treatment-resistant depression. Major depressive disorder affects over 300 million people globally, and the rate of attempted suicides in people with this condition is about 20-fold higher than that of the general population, according to the company. However, depression is a tricky area of development. Patients in clinical trials often show a big placebo response, masking the efficacy of the drug being tested. The FDA, although not mandated to follow the panel’s recommendation, is expected to announce its decision on esketamine by March 4 blob:https://www.nbcnews.com/7ff5f695-0a1d-45c4-95f5-12627211ac08

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Combined Treatment With Naltrexone, Ketamine Effective for Depressive Symptoms

Ketamine
Participants who received the naltrexone and ketamine regimen reported an improvement in depressive symptoms.

The effectiveness of ketamine as an antidepressant has been mitigated by concerns of possible abuse and suggestions that the antidepressant effects might be dependent on opiate receptor stimulation. However, results from a case series published in JAMA Psychiatry support the efficacy of combined naltrexone and ketamine treatment for depressive symptoms.

Investigators conducted an 8-week open-label pilot study of 5 patients with current major depressive disorder and alcohol use disorder. Patients received a single dose of injectable naltrexone (380 mg) 2 to 6 days prior to the first ketamine treatment, followed by 4 weeks of ketamine infusions (0.5 mg/kg once a week). Patients were assessed at baseline and at 4 hours after each infusion with the Montgomery Åsberg Depression Rating Scale. The primary outcome measure was a 50% or higher improvement from baseline Montgomery Åsberg Depression Rating Scale score. All patients were abstinent from alcohol for 5 days or longer prior to the initial ketamine infusion.

Combined treatment with naltrexone and ketamine was associated with a significant reduction in depressive symptoms. Three of 5 patients (60%) met response criteria following initial ketamine dose, and 5 of 5 patients (100%) met response criteria by the fourth dose, although 1 patient left the trial following 2 ketamine infusions. Symptoms improved by 57% to 92%, depending on the patient. In addition, 4 of 5 patients (80%) reported a reduction in alcohol craving and consumption per the Obsessive Compulsive Drinking Scale. Combined treatment was safe and well tolerated. No serious adverse events were reported in the trial.

These results challenge existing data that pretreatment with naltrexone may interfere with the antidepressant properties of ketamine. Research with a larger cohort is necessary to further investigate the efficacy of combination treatment with naltrexone and ketamine for depression.

Reference

Yoon G, Petrakis IL, Krystal JH. Association of combined naltrexone and ketamine with depressive symptoms in a case series of patients with depression and alcohol use disorder [published online January 9, 2019]. JAMA Psychiatry. doi: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2018.3990

Association of Combined Naltrexone and Ketamine with depressive symptoms in a case series of patients with depression and AUD

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NEW VARIATION OF KETAMINE TO BE APPROVED BY FDA FOR TREATMENT OF DEPRESSION

“The biggest breakthrough in depression treatment since Prozac”

  • 6 FEBRUARY 2019
New variation of ketamine to be approved by FDA for treatment of depression

Back in July of 2017, the world’s first ketamine trial for depression proved to be “incredibly effective” in curing elderly patients. The drug, often referred to as Special K, is a popular substance found clubland culture, but recent breakthrough studies and the development of chemical variations of ketamine has shown that the drug is a powerful tool that can help save lives and allow people to live life to the fullest potential.

According to Bloomberg, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has cleared the way for the first drug based on ketamine, from Johnson & Johnson, to gain approval as soon as March 2019. The ketamine variant, called esketamine, may very well become the first-ever rapid-acting antidepressant for suicidal patients and “treatment-resistant depression”. While physicians are still unsure about the long term effects of the drug and more trials need to be conducted in order to get to the root of its effectiveness, many doctors think esketamine may be “the biggest breakthrough in depression treatment since Prozac”.

The long-form story published in Bloomberg tells the stories of multiple people who have benefited from ketamine treatment and how the rapid development of this new miracle drug is being used to combat the skyrocketing rate of suicide in the United States (up 33 per cent in the last 20 years).

The drug esketamine provides “a quick molecular reset button for brains impaired by stress or depression”. Initially developed as an intravenous drug, Johnson & Johnson has developed a nasal solution that has the same effect. The initial study of the drug involved 68 people at high risk that were all antidepressants and other treatment – no placebos were used on actively suicidal patients. Of those who were given esketamine, 40 per cent were deemed “no longer at risk of killing themselves within 24 hours”.

As physicians and investors race to find out more about this supposed miracle drug, concerns remain that a new abuse crisis – similar to that of the current opioid crisis – may arise following federal approval of the substance.

Check out the captivating story behind these successful studies here

Learn more about ketamine’s colorful clubland history here.

Find out how we survived an unconventional, silly, hilarious and definitely brilliant musical about ketamine here.

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Ketamine Could Be the Key to Reversing America’s Rising Suicide Rate

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Ketamine Could Be the Key to Reversing America’s Rising Suicide Rate

A version of the club drug is expected to be approved for depression in March. Researchers think it could help treat suicidal thinking.

Joe Wright has no doubt that ketamine saved his life. A 34-year-old high school teacher who writes poetry every day on a typewriter, Wright was plagued by suicidal impulses for years. The thoughts started coming on when he was a high schooler himself, on Staten Island, N.Y., and intensified during his first year of college. “It was an internal monologue, emphatic on how pointless it is to exist,” he says. “It’s like being ambushed by your own brain.”

He first tried to kill himself by swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills the summer after his sophomore year. Years of treatment with Prozac, Zoloft, Wellbutrin, and other antidepressants followed, but the desire for an end was never fully resolved. He started cutting himself on his arms and legs with a pencil-sharpener blade. Sometimes he’d burn himself with cigarettes. He remembers few details about his second and third suicide attempts. They were halfhearted; he drank himself into a stupor and once added Xanax into the mix.

Wright decided to try again in 2016, this time using a cocktail of drugs he’d ground into a powder. As he tells the story now, he was preparing to mix the powder into water and drink it when his dog jumped onto his lap. Suddenly he had a moment of clarity that shocked him into action. He started doing research and came upon a Columbia University study of a pharmaceutical treatment for severe depression and suicidality. It involved an infusion of ketamine, a decades-old anesthetic that’s also an infamous party drug. He immediately volunteered.

His first—and only—ketamine infusion made him feel dreamlike, goofy, and euphoric. He almost immediately started feeling more hopeful about life. He was more receptive to therapy. Less than a year later, he married. Today he says his dark moods are remote and manageable. Suicidal thoughts are largely gone. “If they had told me how much it would affect me, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Wright says. “It is unconscionable that it is not already approved for suicidal patients.”

The reasons it isn’t aren’t strictly medical. Over the past three decades, pharmaceutical companies have conducted hundreds of trials for at least 10 antidepressants to treat severe PMS, social anxiety disorder, and any number of conditions. What they’ve almost never done is test their drugs on the sickest people, those on the verge of suicide. There are ethical considerations: Doctors don’t want to give a placebo to a person who’s about to kill himself. And reputational concerns: A suicide in a drug trial could hurt a medication’s sales prospects.

The risk-benefit calculation has changed amid the suicide epidemic in the U.S. From 1999 to 2016, the rate of suicides increased by 30 percent. It’s now the second-leading cause of death for 10- to 34-year-olds, behind accidents. (Globally the opposite is true: Suicide is decreasing.) Growing economic disparity, returning veterans traumatized by war, the opioid crisis, easy access to guns—these have all been cited as reasons for the rise in America. There’s been no breakthrough in easing any of these circumstances.

But there is, finally, a serious quest for a suicide cure. Ketamine is at the center, and crucially the pharmaceutical industry now sees a path. The first ketamine-based drug, from Johnson & Johnson, could be approved for treatment-resistant depression by March and suicidal thinking within two years. Allergan Plc is not far behind in developing its own fast-acting antidepressant that could help suicidal patients. How this happened is one of the most hopeful tales of scientific research in recent memory.

relates to Ketamine Could Be the Key to Reversing America’s Rising Suicide Rate
Dennis Charney at Mount Sinai.PHOTOGRAPHER: MAX AGUILERA-HELLWEG FOR BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK

Dennis Charney, dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, works from an office filled with family pictures, diplomas, and awards from a long career in research. One thing on the wall is different from the rest: a patent for the use of a nasal-spray form of ketamine as a treatment for suicidal patients. The story of the drug is in some ways the story of Charney’s career.

In the 1990s he was a psychiatry professor, mentoring then associate professor John Krystal at Yale and trying to figure out how a deficit of serotonin played into depression. Back then, depression research was all about serotonin. The 1987 approval of Prozac, the first selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, or SSRI, ushered in an era of what people in the industry call me-too drug development, research that seeks to improve on existing medicines rather than exploring new approaches. Within this narrow range, pharmaceutical companies churned out blockbuster after blockbuster. One in eight Americans age 12 and older reported using antidepressants within the past month, according to a survey conducted from 2011 to 2014 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Charney was a depression guy; Krystal was interested in schizophrenia. Their curiosity led them to the same place: the glutamate system, what Krystal calls the “main information highway of the higher brain.” (Glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter, which helps brain cells communicate. It’s considered crucial in learning and memory formation.) They had already used ketamine to temporarily produce schizophrenia-like symptoms, to better understand glutamate’s role in that condition. In the mid-1990s they decided to conduct a single-dose study of ketamine on nine patients (two ultimately dropped out) at the Yale-affiliated VA Connecticut Healthcare System in West Haven to see how depressed people would react to the drug.

“If we had done the typical thing … we would have completely missed the antidepressant effect”

Outside the field of anesthesiology, ketamine is known, if it’s known at all, for its abuse potential. Street users sometimes take doses large enough to enter what’s known as a “K hole,” a state in which they’re unable to interact with the world around them. Over the course of a day, those recreational doses can be as much as 100 times greater than the tiny amount Charney and Krystal were planning to give to patients. Nonetheless, they decided to monitor patients for 72 hours—well beyond the two hours that ketamine produces obvious behavioral effects—just to be careful not to miss any negative effects that might crop up. “If we had done the typical thing that we do with these drug tests,” Krystal says, “we would have completely missed the antidepressant effect of ketamine.”

Checking on patients four hours after the drug had been administered, the researchers saw something unexpected. “To our surprise,” Charney says, “the patients started saying they were better, they were better in a few hours.” This was unheard of. Antidepressants are known for taking weeks or months to work, and about a third of patients aren’t sufficiently helped by the drugs. “We were shocked,” says Krystal, who now chairs the Yale psychiatry department. “We didn’t submit the results for publication for several years.”

When Charney and Krystal did publish their findings, in 2000, they attracted almost no notice. Perhaps that was because the trial was so small and the results were almost too good to be true. Or maybe it was ketamine’s reputation as an illicit drug. Or the side effects, which have always been problematic: Ketamine can cause patients to disassociate, meaning they enter a state in which they feel as if their mind and body aren’t connected.

But probably none of these factors mattered as much as the bald economic reality. The pharmaceutical industry is not in the business of spending hundreds of millions of dollars to do large-scale studies of an old, cheap drug like ketamine. Originally developed as a safer alternative to the anesthetic phencyclidine, better known as PCP or angel dust, ketamine has been approved since 1970. There’s rarely profit in developing a medication that’s been off patent a long time, even if scientists find an entirely new use for it.

Somehow, even with all of this baggage, research into ketamine inched forward. The small study that almost wasn’t published has now been cited more than 2,000 times.

relates to Ketamine Could Be the Key to Reversing America’s Rising Suicide Rate
John Mann in his office at Columbia’s New York State Psychiatric Institute. 

Suicide is described in medicine as resulting from a range of mental disorders and hardships—a tragedy with many possible roots. Conditions such as severe depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia are known risk factors. Childhood trauma or abuse may also be a contributor, and there may be genetic risk factors as well.

From these facts, John Mann, an Australian-born psychiatrist with a doctorate in neurochemistry, made a leap. If suicide has many causes, he hypothesized, then all suicidal brains might have certain characteristics in common. He’s since done some of the most high-profile work to illuminate what researchers call the biology of suicide. The phrase itself represents a bold idea—that there’s an underlying physiological susceptibility to suicide, apart from depression or another psychiatric disorder.

Mann moved to New York in 1978, and in 1982, at Cornell University, he started collecting the brains of people who’d killed themselves. He recruited Victoria Arango, now a leading expert in the field of suicide biology. The practice of studying postmortem brain tissue had largely fallen out of favor, and Mann wanted to reboot it. “He was very proud to take me to the freezer,” Arango says of the day Mann introduced her to the brain collection, which then numbered about 15. “I said, ‘What am I supposed to do with this?’ ”

relates to Ketamine Could Be the Key to Reversing America’s Rising Suicide Rate
Some of Mann’s brain collection. 

They took the work, and the brains, first to the University of Pittsburgh, and then, in 1994, to Columbia. They’ve now amassed a collection of some 1,000 human brains—some from suicide victims, the others, control brains—filed neatly in freezers kept at –112F. The small Balkan country of Macedonia contributes the newest brains, thanks to a Columbia faculty member from there who helped arrange it. The Macedonian brains are frozen immediately after being removed and flown in trunks, chaperoned, some 4,700 miles to end up in shoe-box-size, QR-coded black boxes. Inside are dissected sections of pink tissue in plastic bags notated with markers: right side, left side, date of collection.

In the early 1990s, Mann and Arango discovered that depressed patients who killed themselves have subtle alterations in serotonin in certain regions of the brain. Mann remembers sitting with Arango and neurophysiologist Mark Underwood, her husband and longtime research partner, and analyzing the parts of the brain affected by the deficit. They struggled to make sense of it, until it dawned on them that these were the same brain regions described in a famous psychiatric case study. In 1848, Phineas Gage, an American railroad worker, was impaled through the skull by a 43-inch-long tamping iron when the explosives he was working with went off prematurely. He survived, but his personality was permanently altered. In a paper titled “Recovery From the Passage of an Iron Bar Through the Head,” his doctor wrote that Gage’s “animal propensities” had emerged and described him as using the “grossest profanity.” Modern research has shown that the tamping iron destroyed key areas of the brain involved in inhibition—the same areas that were altered in the depressed patients who’d committed suicide. For the group, this was a clue that the differences in the brain of suicidal patients were anatomically important.

relates to Ketamine Could Be the Key to Reversing America’s Rising Suicide Rate
Columbia’s Victoria Arango. 

“Most people inhibit suicide. They find a reason not to do it,” Underwood says. Thanks to subtle changes in the part of the brain that might normally control inhibition and top-down control, people who kill themselves “don’t find a reason not to do it,” he says.

About eight years ago, Mann saw ketamine research taking off in other corners of the scientific world and added the drug to his own work. In one trial, his group found that ketamine treatment could ease suicidal thoughts in 24 hours more effectively than a control drug. Crucially, they found that the antisuicidal effects of ketamine were to some extent independent of the antidepressant effect of the drug, which helped support their thesis that suicidal impulses aren’t necessarily just a byproduct of depression. It was this study, led by Michael Grunebaum, a colleague of Mann’s, that made a believer of Joe Wright.

“It’s like you have 50 pounds on your shoulders, and the ketamine takes 40 pounds off”

In 2000, the National Institutes of Health hired Charney to run both mood disorder and experimental drug research. It was the perfect place for him to forge ahead with ketamine. There he did the work to replicate what he and his colleagues at Yale had discovered. In a study published in 2006, led by researcher Carlos Zarate Jr., who now oversees NIH studies of ketamine and suicidality, an NIH team found that patients had “robust and rapid antidepressant effects” from a single dose of the drug within two hours. “We could not believe it. In the first few subjects we were like, ‘Oh, you can always find one patient or two who gets better,’ ” Zarate recalls.

In a 2009 study done at Mount Sinai, patients suffering from treatment-resistant depression showed rapid improvement in suicidal thinking within 24 hours. The next year, Zarate’s group demonstrated antisuicidal effects within 40 minutes. “That you could replicate the findings, the rapid findings, was quite eerie,” Zarate says.

Finally ketamine crossed back into commercial drug development. In 2009, Johnson & Johnson lured away Husseini Manji, a prominent NIH researcher who’d worked on the drug, to run its neuroscience division. J&J didn’t hire him explicitly to develop ketamine into a new pharmaceutical, but a few years into his tenure, Manji decided to look into it. This time it would come in a nasal-spray form of esketamine, a close chemical cousin. That would allow for patent protection. Further, the nasal spray removes some of the challenges that an IV form of the drug would present. Psychiatrists, for one thing, aren’t typically equipped to administer IV drugs in their offices.

While these wheels were slowly turning, some doctors—mostly psychiatrists and anesthesiologists—took action. Around 2012 they started opening ketamine clinics. Dozens have now popped up in major metropolitan areas. Insurance typically won’t touch it, but at these centers people can pay about $500 for an infusion of the drug. It was at one time a cultural phenomenon—a 2015 Bloomberg Businessweek story called it “the club drug cure.” Since then, the sense of novelty has dissipated. In September the American Society of Ketamine Physicians convened its first medical meeting about the unconventional use of the drug.

“You are literally saving lives,” Steven Mandel, an anesthesiologist-turned-ketamine provider, told a room of about 100 people, mostly doctors and nurse practitioners, who gathered in Austin to hear him and other early adopters talk about how they use the drug. Sporadic cheers interrupted the speakers as they presented anecdotes about its effectiveness.

There were also issues to address. A consensus statementin JAMA Psychiatry published in 2017 said there was an “urgent need for some guidance” on ketamine use. The authors were particularly concerned with the lack of data about the safety of prolonged use of the drug in people with mood disorders, citing “major gaps” in the medical community’s knowledge about its long-term impact.

The context for the off-label use of ketamine is a shrinking landscape for psychiatry treatment. An effort to deinstitutionalize the U.S. mental health system, which took hold in the 1960s, has almost resulted in the disappearance of psychiatric hospitals and even psychiatric beds within general hospitals. There were 37,679 psychiatric beds in state hospitals in 2016, down from 558,922 in 1955, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center. Today a person is often discharged from a hospital within days of a suicide attempt, setting up a risky situation in which someone who may not have fully recovered ends up at home with a bunch of antidepressants that could take weeks to lift his mood, if they work at all.

A ketamine clinic can be the way out of this scenario—for people with access and means. For Dana Manning, a 53-year-old Maine resident who suffers from bipolar disorder, $500 is out of reach. “I want to die every day,” she says.

After trying to end her life in 2003 by overdosing on a cocktail of drugs including Xanax and Percocet, Manning tried virtually every drug approved for bipolar disorder. None stopped the mood swings. In 2010 the depression came back so intensely that she could barely get out of bed and had to quit her job as a medical records specialist. Electroconvulsive therapy, the last-ditch treatment for depressed patients who don’t respond to drugs, didn’t help.

Her psychiatrist went deep into the medical literature to find options and finally suggested ketamine. He was even able to get the state Medicaid program to cover it, she says. She received a total of four weekly infusions before she moved to Pennsylvania, where there were more family members nearby to care for her.

The first several weeks following her ketamine regimen were “the only time I can say I have felt normal” in 15 years, she says. “It’s like you have 50 pounds on your shoulders, and the ketamine takes 40 pounds off.”

She’s now back in Maine, and the depression has returned. Her current Medicare insurance won’t cover ketamine. She lives on $1,300 a month in disability income. “Knowing it is there and I can’t have it is beyond frustrating,” she says.

relates to Ketamine Could Be the Key to Reversing America’s Rising Suicide Rate
Mark Underwood at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. 

Ketamine is considered a “dirty” drug by scientists—it affects so many pathways and systems in the brain at the same time that it’s hard to single out the exact reason it works in the patients it does help. That’s one reason researchers continue to look for better versions of the drug. Another, of course, is that new versions are patentable. Should Johnson & Johnson’s esketamine hit the market, the ketamine pioneers and their research institutions stand to benefit. Yale’s Krystal, NIH’s Zarate, and Sinai’s Charney, all of whom are on the patent on Charney’s wall, will collect royalties based on the drug’s sales. J&J hasn’t said anything about potential pricing, but there’s every reason to believe the biggest breakthrough in depression treatment since Prozac will be expensive.

The company’s initial esketamine study in suicidal patients involved 68 people at high risk. To avoid concerns about using placebos on actively suicidal subjects, everyone received antidepressants and other standard treatments. About 40 percent of those who received esketamine were deemed no longer at risk of killing themselves within 24 hours. Two much larger trials are under way.

When Johnson & Johnson unveiled data from its esketamine study in treatment-resistant depression at the American Psychiatric Association meeting in May, the presentation was jammed. Esketamine could become the first-ever rapid-acting antidepressant, and physicians and investors are clamoring for any information about how it works. The results in suicidal patients should come later this year and could pave the way for a Food and Drug Administration filing for use in suicidal depressed patients in 2020. Allergan expects to have results from its suicide study next year, too.

“The truth is, what everybody cares about is, do they decrease suicide attempts?” says Gregory Simon, a psychiatrist and mental health researcher at Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute. “That is an incredibly important question that we hope to be able to answer, and we are planning for when these treatments become available.”

Exactly how ketamine and its cousin esketamine work is still the subject of intense debate. In essence, the drugs appear to provide a quick molecular reset button for brains impaired by stress or depression. Both ketamine and esketamine release a burst of glutamate. This, in turn, may trigger the growth of synapses, or neural connections, in brain areas that may play a role in mood and the ability to feel pleasure. It’s possible the drug works to prevent suicide by boosting those circuits while also reestablishing some of the inhibition needed to prevent a person from killing himself. “We certainly think that esketamine is working exactly on the circuitry of depression,” Manji says. “Are we homing in exactly on where suicidal ideation resides?” His former colleagues at NIH are trying to find that spot in the brain as well. Using polysomnography—sleep tests in which patients have nodes connected to various parts of their head to monitor brain activity—as well as MRIs and positron emission tomography, or PET scans, researchers can see how a patient’s brain responds to ketamine, to better understand exactly what it’s doing to quash suicidal thinking.

Concerns about the side effects of ketamine-style drugs linger. Some patients taking esketamine have reported experiencing disassociation symptoms. Johnson & Johnson calls the effects manageable and says they cropped up within an hour of the treatment, a period in which a person on the drug would likely be kept in the doctor’s office for monitoring. Some patients also experienced modest spikes in blood pressure within the same timeframe.

Nasal-spray dosing brings other issues. The Black Dog Institute in Australia and the University of New South Wales in Sydney, which teamed up to study a nasal-spray form of ketamine, published their findings last March in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. The researchers found that absorption rates were variable among patients. J&J says its own studies with esketamine contradict these findings.

But in the wake of the opioid crisis, perhaps the biggest worry is that loosening the reins too much on the use of ketamine and similar drugs could lead to a new abuse crisis. That’s why Wall Street analysts are particularly excited by Allergan’s rapid-acting antidepressant, rapastinel, which is about a year behind esketamine in testing. Researchers say it likely acts on the same target in the brain as ketamine, the NMDA receptor, but in a more subtle way that may avoid the disassociation side effects and abuse potential. Studies in lab animals show the drug doesn’t lead creatures to seek more of it, as they sometimes do with ketamine, says Allergan Vice President Armin Szegedi. Allergan’s medicine is an IV drug, but the company is developing an oral drug.

For its suicide study, Allergan is working hard to enroll veterans, one of the populations most affected by the recent spike in suicides, and has included several U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers as sites in the trial. More than 6,000 veterans died by suicide each year from 2008 to 2016, a rate that’s 50 percent higher than in the general population even after adjusting for demographics, according to VA data.

“How the brain mediates what makes us who we are is still a mystery, and maybe we will never fully understand it,” Szegedi says. “What really changed the landscape here is you had clinical data showing ‘This really does the trick.’ Once you find something in the darkness, you really have to figure out: Can you do something better, faster, safer?”

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, the National Suicide Prevention hotline is 1 (800) 273 8255.

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Depression Therapy With Party-Drug Roots Faces FDA Panel Review

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Potential for abuse and strategies for containing any risks from an experimental depression treatment from Johnson & Johnson will be in focus at an Food and Drug Administration panel next week.

J&J’s nasal spray, esketamine, a close cousin of the party drug ketamine, will be considered by an FDA advisory panel on Feb. 12. While agency staff seemed satisfied that the likelihood of abuse is low, they raised questions about safety issues connected to a dreamlike sensation the medication can create in some users.

“Ketamine abuse is relatively uncommon in the general population,” agency staff said in a report ahead of next week’s meeting. Just 1.3 percent of people over age 12 abuse the drug, lower than abuse rates for other hallucinogens like ecstasy and LSD.

At the same time, reviewers worried that patients could get into accidents or otherwise be harmed if they leave a doctor’s office while still experiencing disassociation, a known side effect of ketamine — and a sought-after experience for casual users who have dubbed the spacey feeling the “K-hole.”

It takes roughly 90 minutes for disassociation symptoms from esketamine to resolve, according to the report. FDA staff also cited elevated blood pressure as a safety concern.

Esketamine is a key part of J&J’s pharmaceutical pipeline, as the company faces flagging sales this year weighed down by drug pricing scrutiny and looming generic competition. Its shares, which rose 2.3 percent this year through Thursday’s close, were were little changed in early trading on Friday.

In addition to weighing in on the drug’s safety and a proposed risk-evaluation and mitigation strategy, FDA staff will ask advisers to vote on whether esketamine effectively treated the depression of patients who weren’t helped by other therapies. They’ll also discuss whether additional studies are needed before or after the drug is potentially approved.

The staff report noted there were six deaths among patients taking the J&J drug, of which three were suicide in the esketamine depression program, but they didn’t see a clear link to the drug itself.

“Given the small number of cases, the severity of the patients’ underlying illness, and the lack of a consistent pattern among these cases, it is difficult to consider these deaths as drug related,” staff reviewers noted.

A decision on whether to allow the drug on the market is expected by March 4. Esketamine has the FDA’s breakthrough-therapy designation in treatment-resistant depression as well as for depressed people at risk of suicide. Results from a study in suicidal patients are expected this year. Allergan is also testing a fast-acting antidepressant, rapastinel, which is about a year behind esketamine in testing.