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A Case Built on Current Research Findings
Ketamine has caused quite a stir in psychiatric practice. Sub-anesthetic administrations of ketamine have been shown to markedly improve symptoms of depression and anxiety.1 While the growing off-label use of ketamine speaks to the need for novel approaches to psychiatric care and treatment-resistant illness, it also presents an ethical dilemma, wherein widespread adoption has once again leaped ahead of scientific understanding.
The current literature suggests that therapeutic effects of ketamine involve modulation of glutamate neurotransmission, α-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazole propionic acid (AMPA) receptor potentiation, downstream influences on neurotrophic signaling cascades and neuroplasticity, and functional changes in assorted neural networks. Additional work is necessary to clarify the importance and reliability of these biological findings.
Another arc to the ketamine story dates back to a decades-old era of psychedelic research and search for medications with transformative power. Indeed, although primarily conceptualized today as a dissociative anesthetic, ketamine has also been classified more broadly as a hallucinogen. Hallucinogens function by various pharmacological mechanisms of action but exhibit similarities in their ability to occasion temporary but profound alterations of consciousness, involving acute changes in somatic, perceptual, cognitive, and affective processes.
Current biological theories involving ketamine’s antidepressant effect may be inseparable from these non-ordinary experiences of consciousness, but we can only know the answers to questions we ask. Here we examine findings from contemporary research that hint at the unexplored hallucinogenic potential of ketamine and considerations for future investigation.
There has been a resurgence of interest in hallucinogenic psychedelics (eg, psilocybin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), mescaline, N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT)) and entactogens (eg, 3, 4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine [MDMA]) in psychiatric research, which are hypothesized to achieve clinical benefit due to, in part, experiences of altered consciousness and fundamental shifts in mental frameworks.2
These drugs have been associated with cognitive states of enduring personal importance and have been compared with mystical experiences that might emerge over the ordinary course of life and carry sacred or spiritual meaning. Furthermore, these experiences may powerfully influence existential concepts of self, including moral values, self-identity, and purpose. There is converging evidence that these psychedelic effects are mediated in part by activity at 5HT-2A receptors. Ketamine may induce alterations in consciousness and personal frameworks similar to those achieved by serotonergic psychedelics while also sharing a common glutamatergic pathway of drug effect.3,4 However, there has been little investigation into how such changes might mediate the therapeutic potential of ketamine.
Preliminary data suggest that ketamine produces meaningful, transformative experiences that may help patients accept healthier values, behaviors, and beliefs related to abstinence from drugs and alcohol.5,6 Other evidence suggests that dose-related mystical-type experiences mediate the effects of ketamine on motivation to quit in cocaine-dependent research volunteers.7Few recent studies have examined whether ketamine’s hallucinogenic properties are implicated in antidepressant effects; however, psychiatric vulnerabilities to depression plausibly involve an existential dimension. This dimension includes depressive symptoms of hopelessness, guilt, and suicidality, which appear to be ketamine-sensitive.8
Given the paucity of modern literature exploring the psychedelic and mystical properties of ketamine in depression, more widespread data on psychotomimetic and dissociative effects of ketamine provide some initial groundwork. Berman and collegeagues9 and Zarate and colleagues10 suggested that the antidepressant effects of ketamine (0.5 mg/kg over 40 min) were disconnected from ketamine-induced psychotomimetic symptoms. The antidepressant effects, measured by the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (HDRS), were significant even after positive symptoms on the Brief Psychiatric Rating Scale (BPRS) returned to baseline. However, it was also noted that initial changes in BPRS positive symptom scales from baseline trended to predict a greater decrease in HDRS scores within a day of treatment with ketamine.
A small study further demonstrated a substantial relationship between psychotomimetic effects 30 minutes after ketamine administration (0.54mg/kg over 30 min) as measured by BPRS and antidepressant effects in the following week.11 A larger study involving 108 patients found that dissociation measured by the Clinician Administered Dissociative States Scale (CADDS) at 40 minutes was associated with HDRS score improvement at 230 minutes and 7 days after infusion.12 Although no relationship between initial BPRS positive subscale scores and antidepressant effect was found, a correlation between CADSS and BPRS scores was found at 40 minutes postinfusion.
In a small study by Valentine and colleagues,13 the proposed correlation between ketamine-induced dissociation and antidepressant efficacy was not observed. However, a larger analysis found that greater intra-infusion dissociation as measured by CADDS was one of the strongest predictors of extended antidepressant response.14 Both of these studies utilized a single 0.5 mg/kg ketamine infusion delivered over 40 minutes.
Further investigation is needed, but there is an emerging rationale for a connection between the psychotomimetic or dissociative effects of ketamine and its antidepressant efficacy. Perhaps the experience of these effects simply un-blinds patients as to whether they are receiving ketamine or placebo in randomized trials; it may also be that such symptoms are only a “side effect” of ketamine’s mechanism of action. However, it is also worth considering that the psychotomimetic or dissociative effects associated with ketamine treatment are markers or mediators of subjective experiences of potential therapeutic value seen with other hallucinogenic agents.
The recommended doses of ketamine for anesthetic induction are typically 1 to 4.5mg/kg IV and 6.5 to 13 mg/kg IM, with alternate, off-label recommendations for 0.5 to 2 mg/kg IV and 4 to 10 mg/kg IM, primarily in the context of adjuvant drug use. For use in depression, ketamine is most commonly administered at a sub-anesthetic dose of 0.5mg/kg IV across 40 minutes.
Interestingly, in a study of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and anesthetic induction with either a near-anesthetic dose of IV ketamine (0.8mg/kg) alone, sub-anesthetic ketamine (0.5mg/kg) plus propofol (0.8mg/kg), or propofol alone (0.8mg/kg), predicted a more rapid antidepressant effect and a higher remission rate than propofol use. The near-anesthetic dose of ketamine was associated with superior antidepressant effects than the mixed, sub-anesthetic dose.15
In a study of ketamine alongside psychotherapy for heroin addiction, Krupitsky and colleagues6compared the effects of 2 doses of ketamine (0.2 and 2.0 mg/kg IM) and found that only the higher dose was associated with a “full psychedelic experience” as measured by the Hallucinogen Rating Scale (HRS). The lower dose was considered a “sub-psychedelic” active placebo, but was nonetheless associated with some positive drug effects: patients were still affected by their experiences and considered them useful and therapeutic. The high dose group ultimately experienced higher rates of abstinence, greater effect on emotional attitudes related to abstinence, and lower rates of relapse and drug craving than the low dose group. Both doses resulted in post-treatment reductions in measures of depression and anxiety; there were no significant differences between the groups.
Similarly, Dakwar and colleagues7 compared the effects of 0.41 mg/kg and 0.71 mg/kg doses of IV ketamine given to cocaine-dependent patients. Dose-dependent mystical-type effects as measured by Hood’s Mysticism Scale (HMS) were seen as well as a relationship between HMS scores and the motivation to quit cocaine 24 hours post-infusion.
A different study involving a lower dose of intramuscular (IM) ketamine did not generate the same mystical-type phenomena.16 Perhaps these results highlight the importance of calibrating dosing and delivery. Clements and colleagues17 demonstrated that ketamine had reduced bioavailability with IM administration compared with IV administration. Taken together, these findings support the idea that positive treatment outcomes for ketamine may be dose-dependent and its psychoactive effects are based on delivery parameters.
One criticism of ketamine has been its short duration of antidepressant effect, with benefits peaking at 24 hours post-infusion and generally subsiding by 72 hours. The most promising approach to this challenge thus far seems to be the strategy of repeated-dose ketamine infusions, which have observed extended time-to-relapse and increased rates of antidepressant response.18
If ketamine’s therapeutic effect is indeed mediated by psychoactive experience, it may be that repeated dosing of ketamine improves outcomes by increasing opportunities for personally meaningful events to occur. One caveat is that some studies have shown repeated dosing to be associated with fewer dissociative symptoms over time—at first glance this suggests that the antidepressant value of serial ketamine administration might be independent of hallucinogenic effects.
While this requires further investigation, it is also important to consider other interpretations of that evidence: that acclimation to altered states of consciousness may contribute to recall bias, that experimental protocols that frame dissociative symptoms as a “side effect” or “adverse event” may lead to underreporting if overall patient experiences of ketamine are positive, or even that the benefit of repeated dosing may be less related to cumulative drug effect than other factors, such as repeated interactions with care providers or increased opportunities for reflection and synthesis.
One study of repeated infusions demonstrated that antidepressant response very early in the course of treatment strongly predicted subsequent response; conversely, a lack of rapid response was a poor prognostic indicator for improvement after additional infusions. Whether positive early responses to ketamine are mediated by psychological factors, biological susceptibility, or both: it is necessary to clarify these factors in shaping sustainable strategies for treatment.
A cautious approach also seems imperative given evidence that ketamine demonstrates agonist activity at μ-opioid receptors and dopaminergic effects that may confer acute relief of depressive symptoms but also greater risk for positive drug reinforcement and dependence. With further insight into psychological responses mediated by ketamine, it may be that a therapy-based framework for ketamine administration optimizes treatment efficacy and sustainability, while also minimizing unnecessary drug exposure, adverse effects of chronic use, and dependency risk.
Further study needed
In one study, long-term abstinence in persons who were substance dependent was achieved with Ketamine Psychedelic Therapy (KPT), which incorporates 1 or 2 sessions of ketamine-facilitated existential reappraisal into an existential psychotherapy.6 Additional exploration would be needed to determine which therapeutic approaches most beneficially augment ketamine treatment and minimize risks for harm. Nevertheless, a more holistic approach to ketamine as a treatment modality may be better suited to recreate the marked, persistent effects of MDMA in patients with PTSD. For example, in one study sustained symptom reductions were achieved with 12 weeks of psychotherapy but with limited MDMA exposures of only three 8-hour sessions.19
Another area that requires further investigation is how a patient’s past history might shape psychoactive responses. These personal and quite variable histories have been explored for some hallucinogenic agents but minimally for ketamine. The expectations and personal experiences of the individual user along with the external environment of use have been identified as critical factors in influencing subjective drug effects—coined “set” and “setting,” respectively—and are now considered well-established elements of human hallucinogen research.20
Therapies aimed at the pharmacological production of a transformative experience may depend on factors such as patient personality structure, preparation for treatment, emotional activation before drug intake, treatment context, and perceived quality of the experience. Given the unique psychological risks of hallucinogen administration, it is recommended that clinicians screen for personal or family histories of psychotic or other severe psychiatric disorders prior to treatment. Clinicians are also encouraged to facilitate careful patient preparation for sessions, provide a safe physical environment for treatment administration, and allow for interpersonal support during sessions. These and other insights from hallucinogenic research might valuably inform treatment protocols for ketamine administration.
Ketamine is uniquely poised to make a tremendous impact on psychiatric care, even redefining boundaries for patients with variations in depressive disorders that were once thought to be “treatment resistant.” Our synthesis of this emerging and old literature points to the unexplored hallucinogenic potential of ketamine. By further understanding the desirable psychoactive effects of ketamine, clinicians can build on initial treatment successes and maximize patient successes.
Future directions for research include:
• Further investigating the relationship between ketamine-induced psychotomimetic and dissociative effects and treatment efficacy
• Clarifying the connection between these effects and potentially desirable hallucinogenic experiences
• Exploring the therapeutic value of such elicited experiences
• Revisiting dosing strategies that account for existential phenomena and looking beyond dissociation as simply being an “adverse event”
• Incorporating psychotherapy-based frameworks into ongoing investigation
• Assessing set and setting factors that may shape treatment responses
Some answers and clues are likely to be found in the forgotten works of older psychedelic research. Agents like ketamine can exert their greatest therapeutic effect in the afterglow of profound alterations of consciousness, revealing a propensity for growth and healing that has not been evident to the suffering, depressed patient. Wherever the journey takes us, it is exactly the right time to bring together all the strands—brain and mind, old and new, caution and thrill—in assembling the unfinished story of ketamine.
1. Feifel D. Breaking sad: unleashing the breakthrough potential of ketamine’s rapid antidepressant effects. Drug Dev Res. 2016;77;489-494.
2. Griffiths RR, Richards WA, McCann U, Jesse R. Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance. Psychopharmacol (Berl). 2006;187:268-283, 292.
3. Perry EB, Cramer JA, Cho HS, et al. Psychiatric safety of ketamine in psychopharmacology research. Psychopharmacol (Berl). 2007;192:253-260.
4. Vollenweider FX, Kometer M. The neurobiology of psychedelic drugs: implications for the treatment of mood disorders. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2010;11:642-651.
5. Jansen KLR. Ketamine: Dreams and Realities. Sarasota, FL: Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies; 2001.
6. Krupitsky E, Burakov A, Romanova T, et al. Ketamine psychotherapy for heroin addiction: immediate effects and two-year follow-up. J Subst Abuse Treat. 2002;23:273-283.
7. Dakwar E, Levin F, Foltin RW, et al. The effects of sub-anesthetic ketamine infusions on motivation to quit and cue-induced craving in cocaine dependent research volunteers. Biol Psychiatry. 2014;76:40-46.
8. Mathew SJ, Shah A, Lapidus K, et al. Ketamine for treatment-resistant unipolar depression: current evidence. CNS Drugs. 2012;26:189-204.
9. Berman RM, Cappiello A, Anand A, et al. Antidepressant effects of ketamine in depressed patients. Biol Psychiatry. 2000;47:351-354.
10. Zarate CA, Singh JB, Carlson PJ, et al. A randomized trial of an N-methyl-D-aspartate antagonist in treatment-resistant major depression. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2006;63:856-864.
11. Sos P, Kirova M, Novak T, et al. Relationship of ketamine’s antidepressant and psychotomimetic effects in unipolar depression. Neuro Endocrinol Lett. 2013;34:287-293.
12. Luckenbaugh DA, Niciu MJ, Ionescu DF, et al. Do the dissociative side effects of ketamine mediate its antidepressant effects? J Affect Disord. 2014;159:56-61.
13. Valentine GW, Mason GF, Gomez R, et al. The antidepressant effect of ketamine is not associated with changes in occipital amino acid neurotransmitter content as measured by [(1)H]-MRS. Psychiatry Res. 2011;191:122-127.
14. Pennybaker SJ, Niciu MJ, Luckenbaugh DA, Zarate CA. Symptomatology and predictors of antidepressant efficacy in extended responders to a single ketamine infusion. J Affect Disord. 2017;208:560-566.
15. Zhong X, He H, Zhang C, et al. Mood and neuropsychological effects of different doses of ketamine in electroconvulsive therapy for treatment-resistant depression. J Affect Disord. 2016;201:124-130.
16. Lofwall MR, Griffiths RR, Mintzer MZ. Cognitive and subjective acute dose effects of intramuscular ketamine in healthy adults. Exp Clin Psychopharmacol. 2006;14:439-449.
17. Clements JA, Nimmo WS, Grant IS. Bioavailability, pharmacokinetics, and analgesic activity of ketamine in humans. J Pharma Sci. 1982;71:539-542.
18. Murrough JW, Perez AM, Pillemer S, et al. Rapid and longer-term antidepressant effects of repeated ketamine infusions in treatment-resistant major depression. Biol Psychiatry. 2013;74:250-256.
19. Mithoefer, M. C. et al. Durability of improvement in post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and absence of harmful effects or drug dependency after 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine-assisted psychotherapy: a prospective long-term follow-up study. J Psychopharmacol. 2013;27:28-39.
20. Leary T, Litwin GH, Metzner R. Reactions to psilocybin administered in a supportive environment. J Nerv Ment Dis. 1963;137:561-573.
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The drug Ketamine is considered a breakthrough treatment for depression and some other neuropsychiatric conditions. Below are excerpts from recent articles discussing this revolutionary treatment and the links to the full articles.
Ketamine For Depression: the Highs and Lows.
The Lancet Psychiatry. VOLUME 2, ISSUE 9, P783–784, SEPTEMBER 2015
Long used as an anaesthetic and analgesic, most people familiar with ketamine know of it for this purpose. Others know it as a party drug that can give users an out-of-body experience, leaving them completely disconnected from reality. Less well known is its growing off-label use in the USA for depression, in many cases when other options have been exhausted.
David Feifel, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, was one of the first clinicians to use ketamine off-label to treat depression at UCDS’s Center for Advanced Treatment of Mood and Anxiety Disorders, which he recently founded. “Currently approved medications for depression all have about the same, very limited efficacy. A large percentage of patients with depression do not get an adequate level of relief from these antidepressants even when they have tried several different ones and even when other drugs known to augment their effects are added to them”, Feifel tells The Lancet Psychiatry. “The stagnation in current antidepressant medication on the one hand, and the tremendous number of treatment-resistant patients, has propelled me to explore truly novel treatments like ketamine.”
Compelling published study results and case reports exist of patients’ depression—in some cases deeply entrenched depression that has lasted months or even years—alleviating within hours of use of ketamine. However, critics have warned that the drug has not been studied sufficiently (at least outside clinical trials), and also emphasized the cost. Patients can pay more than $1000 per session for treatment that must usually be repeated several times. That cost is rarely covered by the patient’s medical insurance.
Advocates of ketamine use in depression are excited because it has a different mechanism of action to standard antidepressants, which affect signalling by monoamine neurotransmitters such as serotonin, noradrenaline, or dopamine. Ketamine is thought to act by blocking N-methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA) receptors in the brain, which interact with the amino acid neurotransmitter glutamate.
Feifel states that he has patients who have been receiving ketamine treatments every 2–4 weeks for long periods, some for around 3 years, and has not yet seen any safety issues arise.
Pharmaceutical companies are entering this exciting arena by attempting to develop new drugs based on ketamine without similar side-effects. Feifel dismisses the notion that the dissociative so-called trip induced by ketamine is actually an important negative side-effect. “Although I have had a couple patients have unpleasant ‘trips’, it’s exceedingly rare, usually dose related, and very transitory due to ketamine’s rapid metabolism.” Feifel says that, more often than not, patients find the trip to be positive, or even spiritual, and believe it is an important component of the antidepressant effect they experience afterwards. “There is no doubt the dissociative effect represents a logistical issue, requiring monitoring—and this should be addressed in any approval given for ketamine”, he adds.
Feifel says that it is not for him, but for his patients to decide where the balance of risks and benefits lies in trying ketamine to treat their depression”One could make a compelling argument that it’s unethical to withhold ketamine treatments from someone who has chronic, severe treatment resistant depression. But I know this from the patients who tell me they would not be in this world right now if it were not for the ketamine.”
Feifel concludes that it is straightforward to talk to TRD patients about ketamine. “I tell them all the relevant information. The efficacy rates, time to onset of benefits, duration limitations, alternatives, lack of insurance coverage, and other information. My job is to make sure they understand the parameters of the treatment, not to decide whether they should do it.”
Onetime Party Drug Hailed as Miracle for Treating Severe Depression
Washington Post, Feb 2, 2016
Ketamine, popularly known as the psychedelic club drug Special K, has been around since the early 1960s. It is a staple anesthetic in emergency rooms, regularly used for children when they come in with broken bones and dislocated shoulders. It’s an important tool in burn centers and veterinary medicine, as well as a notorious date-rape drug, known for its power to quickly numb and render someone immobile. Since 2006, dozens of studies have reported that it can also reverse the kind of severe depression that traditional antidepressants often don’t touch.
Experts are calling it the most significant advance in mental health in more than half a century. They point to studies showing ketamine not only produces a rapid and robust antidepressant effect; it also puts a quick end to suicidal thinking. “This is the next big thing in psychiatry,” says L. Alison McInnes, a San Francisco psychiatrist who over the past year has enrolled 58 severely depressed patients in Kaiser’s San Francisco clinic. The excitement stems from the fact that it’s working for patients who have spent years cycling through antidepressants, mood stabilizers and various therapies. “Psychiatry has run out of gas” in trying to help depressed patients for whom nothing has worked, she says. “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.”
Ketamine does, however, have one major limitation: Its relief is temporary. Clinical trials at NIMH have found that relapse usually occurs about a week after a single infusion.
A study published in the journal Science in 2010 suggested that ketamine restores brain function through a process called synaptogenesis. Scientists at Yale University found that ketamine not only improved depression-like behavior in rats but also promoted the growth of new synaptic connections between neurons in the brain.
Patients often describe a kind of lucid dreaming or dissociative state in which they lose track of time and feel separated from their bodies. Many enjoy it; some don’t. But studies at NIMH and elsewhere suggest that the psychedelic experience may play a small but significant role in the drug’s efficacy.
As a drug once known almost exclusively to anesthesiologists, ketamine now falls into a gray zone. As the use of ketamine looks likely to grow, many psychiatrists say that use of ketamine for depression should be left to them. “The bottom line is you’re treating depression,” says psychiatrist David Feifel, director of the Center for Advanced Treatment of Mood and Anxiety Disorders at the University of California at San Diego. “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.”
After a lifetime of profound depression, 25 years of therapy and cycling through 18 antidepressants and mood stabilizers, Hartman, then 46, had settled on a date and a plan to end it all. The clinical trial would be his last attempt at salvation.
For 40 minutes, he sat in a hospital room as an IV drip delivered ketamine through his system. Several more hours passed before it occurred to him that all his thoughts of suicide had evaporated.
“My life will always be divided into the time before that first infusion and the time after,” Hartman says today. “That sense of suffering and pain draining away. I was bewildered by the absence of pain.”
Ketamine, popularly known as the psychedelic club drug Special K, has been around since the early 1960s. It is a staple anesthetic in emergency rooms, regularly used for children when they come in with broken bones and dislocated shoulders. It’s an important tool in burn centers and veterinary medicine, as well as a notorious date-rape drug, known for its power to quickly numb and render someone immobile.
Since 2006, dozens of studies have reported that it can also reverse the kind of severe depression that traditional antidepressants often don’t touch. The momentum behind the drug has now reached the American Psychiatric Association, which, according to members of a ketamine task force, seems headed toward a tacit endorsement of the drug for treatment-resistant depression.
Experts are calling it the most significant advance in mental health in more than half a century. They point to studies showing ketamine not only produces a rapid and robust antidepressant effect; it also puts a quick end to suicidal thinking.
Traditional antidepressants and mood stabilizers, by comparison, can take weeks or months to work. In 2010, a major study published in JAMA, the journal of the American Medical Association, reported that drugs in a leading class of antidepressants were no better than placebos for most depression.
A growing number of academic medical centers, including Yale University, the University of California at San Diego, the Mayo Clinic and the Cleveland Clinic, have begun offering ketamine treatments off-label for severe depression, as has Kaiser Permanente in Northern California.
“This is the next big thing in psychiatry,” says L. Alison McInnes, a San Francisco psychiatrist who over the past year has enrolled 58 severely depressed patients in Kaiser’s San Francisco clinic. She says her long-term success rate of 60 percent for people with treatment-resistant depression who try the drug has persuaded Kaiser to expand treatment to two other clinics in the Bay Area. The excitement stems from the fact that it’s working for patients who have spent years cycling through antidepressants, mood stabilizers and various therapies.
“Psychiatry has run out of gas” in trying to help depressed patients for whom nothing has worked, she says. “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.”
McInnes is a member of the APA’s ketamine task force, assigned to codify the protocol for how and when the drug will be given. She says she expects the APA to support the use of ketamine treatment early this year.
The guidelines, which follow the protocol used in the NIMH clinical trial involving Hartman, call for six IV drips over a two-week period. The dosage is very low, about a tenth of the amount used in anesthesia. And when it works, it does so within minutes or hours.
“It’s not subtle,” says Enrique Abreu, a Portland, Ore., anesthesiologist who began treating depressed patients with it in 2012. “It’s really obvious if it’s going to be effective.
“And the response rate is unbelievable. This drug is 75 percent effective, which means that three-quarters of my patients do well. Nothing in medicine has those kind of numbers.”
So far, there is no evidence of addiction at the low dose in which infusions are delivered. Ketamine does, however, have one major limitation: Its relief is temporary. Clinical trials at NIMH have found that relapse usually occurs about a week after a single infusion.
Ketamine works differently from traditional antidepressants, which target the brain’s serotonin and noradrenalin systems. It blocks N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA), a receptor in the brain that is activated by glutamate, a neurotransmitter.
In excessive quantities, glutamate becomes an excitotoxin, meaning that it overstimulates brain cells.
“Ketamine almost certainly modifies the function of synapses and circuits, turning certain circuits on and off,” explains Carlos Zarate Jr., NIMH’s chief of neurobiology and treatment of mood disorders, who has led the research on ketamine. “The result is a rapid antidepressant effect.”
A study published in the journal Science in 2010 suggested that ketamine restores brain function through a process called synaptogenesis. Scientists at Yale University found that ketamine not only improved depression-like behavior in rats but also promoted the growth of new synaptic connections between neurons in the brain.
Even a low-dose infusion can cause intense hallucinations. Patients often describe a kind of lucid dreaming or dissociative state in which they lose track of time and feel separated from their bodies. Many enjoy it; some don’t. But studies at NIMH and elsewhere suggest that the psychedelic experience may play a small but significant role in the drug’s efficacy.
“It’s one of the things that’s really striking,” says Steven Levine, a Princeton, N.J., psychiatrist who estimates that he has treated 500 patients with ketamine since 2011. “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.’ ”
Although bladder problems and cognitive deficits have been reported among long-term ketamine abusers, none of these effects have been observed in low-dose clinical trials. In addition to depression, the drug is being studied for its effectiveness in treating obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, extreme anxiety and Rett syndrome, a rare developmental disorder on the autism spectrum.
The drug’s fleeting remission effect has led many patients to seek booster infusions. Hartman, for one, began his search before he even left his hospital room in Bethesda.
Four years ago, he couldn’t find a doctor in the Pacific Northwest willing to administer ketamine. “At the time, psychiatrists hovered between willful ignorance and outright opposition to it,” says Hartman, whose depression began creeping back a few weeks after his return to Seattle.
It took nine months before he found an anesthesiologist in New York who was treating patients with ketamine. Soon, he was flying back and forth across the country for bimonthly infusions.
Upon his request, he received the same dosage and routine he’d received in Bethesda: six infusions over two weeks. And with each return to New York, his relief seemed to last a little longer. These days, he says that his periods of remission between infusions often stretch to six months. He says he no longer takes any medication for depression besides ketamine.
“I don’t consider myself permanently cured, but now it’s something I can manage,” Hartman says, “like diabetes or arthritis. Before, it was completely unmanageable. It dominated my life and prevented me from functioning.”
In 2012 he helped found the Ketamine Advocacy Network, a group that vets ketamine clinics, advocates for insurance coverage and spreads the word about the drug.
And word has indeed spread. Ketamine clinics, typically operated by psychiatrists or anesthesiologists, are popping up in major cities around the country.
Levine, for one, is about to expand from New Jersey to Denver and Baltimore. Portland’s Abreu recently opened a second clinic in Seattle.
Depression is big business. An estimated 15.7 million adults in the United States experienced at least one major depressive episode in 2014, according to the NIMH.
“There’s a great unmet need in depression,” says Gerard Sanacora, director of the Yale Depression Research Program. “We think this is an extremely important treatment. The concern comes if people start using ketamine before CBT [cognitive behavioral therapy] or Prozac. Maybe someday it will be a first-line treatment. But we’re not there yet.”
Sanacora says a lot more research is required. “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.”
While a single dose of ketamine is cheaper than a $2 bottle of water, the cost to the consumer varies wildly, running anywhere between $500 and $1,500 per treatment. The drug itself is easily available in any pharmacy, and doctors are free to prescribe it — as with any medication approved by the Food and Drug Administration — for off-label use. Practitioners attribute the expense to medical monitoring of patients and IV equipment required during an infusion.
There is no registry for tracking the number of patients being treated with ketamine for depression, the frequency of those treatments, dosage levels, follow-up care and adverse effects.
“We clearly need more standardization in its use,” Zarate says. “We still don’t know what the proper dose should be. We need to do more studies. It still, in my opinion, should be used predominantly in a research setting or highly specialized clinic.”
As a drug once known almost exclusively to anesthesiologists, ketamine now falls into a gray zone.
“Most anesthesiologists don’t do mental health, and there’s no way a psychiatrist feels comfortable putting an IV in someone’s arm,” Abreu says.
It’s a drug, in other words, that practically demands collaboration. Instead, it has set off a turf war. As the use of ketamine looks likely to grow, many psychiatrists say that use of ketamine for depression should be left to them.
“The bottom line is you’re treating depression,” says psychiatrist David Feifel, director of the Center for Advanced Treatment of Mood and Anxiety Disorders at the University of California at San Diego. “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?’ ”
But ketamine has flourished from the ground up and with little or no advertising. The demand has come primarily from patients and their families; Zarate, for instance, says he receives “at least 100 emails a day” from patients.
Nearly every one of them wants to know where they can get it.