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Here is an interesting piece regarding the rapid effects of Ketamine on reversing depression, in specific, making events more pleasurable through modulating the action of Glutamate in the brain.
This article was written by Dr. Zarate:
Highlight: Ketamine: A New (and Faster) Path to Treating Depression
Left: Change in the 21-item Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (HDRS) following ketamine or placebo treatment.
Right: Proportion of responders showing a 50 percent improvement on the HDRS following ketamine or placebo treatment.34
Source: Carlos Zarate, M.D., Experimental Therapeutics and Pathophysiology Branch, NIMH
The most commonly used antidepressants are largely variations on a theme; they increase the supply within synapses of a class of neurotransmitters believed to play a role in depression. While these drugs relieve depression for some, there is a weeks-long delay before they take effect, and some people with “treatment-resistant” depression do not respond at all.
The delay in effectiveness has suggested to scientists that the medication-induced changes in neurotransmitters are several steps away from processes more central to the root cause of depression. One possibility for a more proximal mechanism is glutamate, the primary excitatory, or activating, neurotransmitter in the brain. Preliminary studies suggested that inhibitors of glutamate could have antidepressant-like effects, and in a seminal clinical trial, the drug ketamine—which dampens glutamate signaling—lifted depression in as little as 2 hours in people with treatment-resistant depression.34
The discovery of rapidly acting antidepressants has transformed our expectations—we now look for treatments that will work in 6 hours rather than 6 weeks. But ketamine has some disadvantages; it has to be administered intravenously, the effects are transient, and it has side effects that require careful monitoring. However, results from clinical studies have confirmed the potential of the glutamate pathway as a target for the development of new antidepressants. Continuing research with ketamine has provided information on biomarkers that could be used to predict who will respond to treatment.35Clinical studies are also testing analogs of ketamine in an effort to develop glutamate inhibitors without ketamine’s side effects that can then be used in the clinic.36 Ketamine may also have potential for treating other mental illnesses; for example, a preliminary clinical trial reported that ketamine reduced the severity of symptoms in patients with PTSD. 37 Investigation of the role of glutamate signaling in other illnesses may provide the impetus to develop novel therapies based on this pathway.
One of the imperatives of clinical research going forward will be to demonstrate whether the ability of a compound to interact with a specific brain target is related to some measurable change in brain or behavioral activity that, in turn, can be associated with relief of symptoms. In a study of ketamine’s effects in patients in the depressive phase of bipolar disorder, ketamine restored pleasure-seeking behavior independent from and ahead of its other antidepressant effects. Within 40 minutes after a single infusion of ketamine, treatment-resistant depressed bipolar disorder patients experienced a reversal of a key symptom—loss of interest in pleasurable activities—which lasted up to 14 days.38 Brain scans traced the agent’s action to boosted activity in areas at the front and deep in the right hemisphere of the brain. This approach is consistent with the NIMH’s RDoC project, which calls for the study of functions—such as the ability to seek out and experience rewards—and their related brain systems that may identify subgroups of patients with common underlying dysfunctions that cut across traditional diagnostic categories.
The ketamine story shows that in some instances, a strong and repeatable clinical outcome stemming from a hypothesis about a specific molecular target (e.g., a glutamate receptor) can open up new arenas for basic research to explain the mechanisms of treatment response; basic studies can, in turn, provide data leading to improved treatments directed at that mechanism. A continuing focus on specific mechanisms will not only provide information on the potential of test compounds as depression medications, but will also help us understand which targets in the brain are worth aiming at in the quest for new therapies.
PET scans revealed that ketamine rapidly restored bipolar depressed patients’ ability to anticipate pleasurable experiences by boosting activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (yellow) and related circuitry. Picture shows PET scan data superimposed on anatomical MRI.38
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I also threw in a reprint of the article from NIH regarding strategic principle #2 to find biomarkers of mental health disorders:
Highlight: GPS for the Brain? BrainSpan Atlas Offers Clues to Mental Illnesses
The recently created BrainSpan Atlas of the Developing Human Brain incorporates gene activity or expression (left) along with anatomical reference atlases (right) and neuroimaging data (not shown) of the mid-gestational human brain. In this figure, the location and expression level of the gene TGIF1 is shown in a brain from 21 weeks postconception.
Source: Allen Institute for Brain Science
Technologies have come a long way in mapping the trajectory of mental illnesses. Early efforts provided information on anatomical changes that occur over the course of development. In a step that has been hailed as providing a “GPS for the brain,” the BrainSpan Atlas of the Developing Brain, a partnership among the Allen Institute for Brain Science, Yale University, the University of Southern California, and NIMH—has created a comprehensive 3-D brain blueprint.25 The Atlas details not only the anatomy of the brain’s underlying structures, but also exactly where and when particular genes are turned on and off during mid-pregnancy—a time during fetal brain development when slight variations can have significant long-term consequences, including heightened risk for autism or schizophrenia.26 Knowledge of the location and time when a particular gene is turned on can help us understand how genes are disrupted in mental illnesses, providing important clues to future treatment targets and early interventions. The Atlas resources are freely available to the public on the Allen Brain Atlas data portal. Already, the BrainSpan Atlas has been used to identify genetic networks relevant to autism and schizophrenia.27,28 In both of these studies, the fetal pattern of gene expression revealed relationships that could not be detected by studying gene expression in the adult brain. As most mental illnesses are neurodevelopmental, mapping where and when genes are expressed in the brain provides a fundamental atlas for charting risk.