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How Ketamine Opens a New Era for Depression Treatment

Not for clubbers only.
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Researchers have discovered that ketamine, a drug of choice for club-goers for decades, can be used to fight severe cases of the blues. For more than three decades, patients seeking treatment for depression in the U.S. have been steered primarily to one family of pharmaceuticals. Doctors have been looking for more treatments, particularly for patients who haven’t had success with drugs or who have had suicidal thoughts. (The U.S. suicide rate increased 30% from 1999 to 2016.) Could a party drug be the key to solving the nation’s suicide crisis?

1. What’s ketamine?

It’s an anesthetic approved in 1970 as a safer alternative to phencyclidine, better known as PCP or angel dust. Ketamine became a common battlefield anesthetic during the Vietnam War, and by 1971 it was being used in much higher doses as a recreational drug. By the mid-1980s, ketamine was linked with dance culture in the U.S. and Europe, where it became a popular party drug that can produce euphoria and put users in a dreamlike state. At higher doses it can cause hallucinations and disassociation, a state in which users feel as if their mind and body aren’t connected, sometimes called the “K-hole.”

2. Why is it getting another look?

In March, Johnson & Johnson won approval for esketamine, a close cousin of ketamine, for patients with treatment-resistant depression, who make up one-third of the estimated 17.3 million Americans who have experienced depression. Administered via nasal spray, the drug, Spravato, is being billed as the first major therapeutic advance for depression since the introduction of Prozac in 1987. Spravato is undergoing additional studies, and the drugmaker hopes to win approval to use it for treatment of suicidal depression by 2020. (U.S. President Donald Trump expressed optimism that the drug can succeed in reducing suicides by military veterans.) Janssen, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, filed marketing applications for esketamine in in the EU, UK, Canada, Switzerland, China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Colombia.

3. How is ketamine different from other antidepressants?

Most depression drugs, including Prozac, are part of a class known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs. They work by blocking the re-absorption of the neurotransmitter serotonin, increasing the supply available in the brain. Ketamine works on the neurotransmitter glutamate, which is considered crucial in learning and memory formation. While SSRIs can take weeks or months to take effect, ketamine has been shown to begin working in as little as a few hours, making it the first rapid-acting depression drug. Another psychedelic drug that’s long been frowned-upon, so-called magic mushrooms, or psilocybin, also being studied as a potential treatment for depression.

4. When will it be available?

Some patients have already started taking Spravato for depression. Because of concerns about abuse, the drug is available to patients only under supervision at several hundred medical centers that Johnson & Johnson has certified.

The Reference Shelf

  • Bloomberg Businessweek on how esketamine can transform the treatment of suicidal patients.
  • President Donald Trump is impressed with Spravato’s potential.
  • Spravato has life changing potential, but may not be a surefire hit, Max Nisen argues in Bloomberg Opinion.
  • An academic paper detailing ketamine’s historyas a recreational drug.
  • Johnson & Johnson’s Spravato website, featuring a database of centers certified to give the treatment.



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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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ketamine

ketamine

Introduction

What comes to mind when you think of Ketamine? A drug of abuse? A horse tranquiliser? An anaesthetic agent? In reality it is all three. It usually has short-term hallucinogenic effects or causes a dissociative feeling (e.g. detachment from reality, sedation, or  inability to move). However, with frequent use over time it can cause permanent problems such as ‘ketamine bladder’, resulting in pain and difficulty passing urine.

What we already know

 

Ketamine’s effects are mainly mediated via NMDA (N-methyl-D-aspartate) receptor antagonism, although it is also an agonist at some opioid receptors and interacts with various other receptors, including noradrenaline, serotonin and muscarinic cholinergic receptors.

It is a class B illicit substance and was, in fact, upgraded from class C in June 2014 following a review of its harmful effects. Ketamine (either intramuscularly or intravenously) is licensed for use as an anaesthetic agent in children, young people and adults, but over the last few years interest has been growing in the role of Ketamine as an antidepressant agent. It is not currently licensed for this purpose.

source url Areas of uncertainty

A study published in 2013 suggested that a single injected dose of Ketamine was associated with a rapid-onset antidepressant effect in patients with treatment-resistant depression (Murrough et al). The biggest challenge in terms of research with ketamine is that it remains tricky to compare against a placebo, given the fairly obvious side effects of taking a hallucinogenic drug, but this study compared Ketamine with Midazolam and this is probably the best comparator so far.

The following year, an open label study was published, which found similar antidepressant effects but a whole host of adverse effects were identified (Diamond et al), including anxiety and panic symptoms, increased suicidal ideation, vomiting, headaches and the anticipated feelings of detachment, confusion and dissociative symptoms.

There was a paucity of good quality information until, in 2015, a systematic review and meta-analysis of 21 studies  showed that single ketamine infusions produced a significant anti-depressant effect for up to seven days. Beyond this time, there was no evidence to suggest a prolonged effect.

What’s in the pipeline

There is some evidence to suggest that Ketamine may also work for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Another proposed use for Ketamine (currently being researched at the University of Manchester) is as an adjunct for Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT), potentially minimizing the cognitive impairments experienced post-ECT.

Ketamine remains one of the most promising new treatments for depression, both unipolar and bipolar, but it is not without its problems. Requiring specialist referral and a stay in hospital overnight for a single dose clearly has financial and logistical implications far beyond those of antidepressant tablets with a stronger evidence base behind them. We also need more information about safety and adverse effects, before it can be introduced to a wider market.

References

Coyle, C. M. and Laws, K. R. (2015), The use of ketamine as an antidepressant: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Hum. Psychopharmacol Clin Exp. [Abstract]

Diamond PR, Farmery AD, Atkinson S, Haldar J, Williams N, Cowen PJ, Geddes JR and McShane R. Ketamine infusions for treatment resistant depression: a series of 28 patients treated weekly or twice weekly in an ECT clinic (PDF). J Psychopharmacol, 0269881114527361, first published on April 3, 2014. [PDF]

Murrough, J.W.; Iosifescu, D.V.; Chang, L.C.; Al Jurdi, R.K.; Green, C.E.; Perez, A.M. et al. (2013). Antidepressant efficacy of ketamine in treatment-resistant major depression; a two-site randomized controlled trial. Am J Psychiatry, 170, 1134-1142. [Abstract]

The antidepressant effects of ketamine are confirmed by a new systematic review and meta-analysis

shutterstock_18453376In recent times, few drugs have caused more excitement among clinical researchers than ketamine. It’s well known for its role in anaesthesia and veterinary surgery (“horse tranquilizer”), as well as its illicit use, but progress has been ongoing for about 15 years to repurpose it as an antidepressant.

As a consequence, many new studies are published every month that evaluate to what extent ketamine lives up to its promise as a new antidepressant drug (Aan Het Rot, Zarate, Charney, & Mathew, 2012). To make sense of the flood of new information, naturally intrigued mental elves clearly need researchers to provide timely updates of the current state of knowledge. To this end, Coyle and Laws (2015) have recently published an extensive systematic review and the first meta-analysis that summarises the latest, methodologically sound research.

The key questions of interest to these researchers were:

  • Does ketamine have an immediate effect in reducing depressive symptoms?
  • Are the antidepressant effects of ketamine sustained over time?
  • Are repeat infusions more effective in reducing depressive symptoms?
  • Do primary diagnosis and experimental design moderate the impact of ketamine on depressive symptoms?
  • Do men and women experience differences in the antidepressant effect of ketamine?

This review looked at how well the effects of ketamine are maintained over

This review looked at how well the effects of ketamine are maintained over 4 hours, 24 hours, 7 days and 12-14 days.

Methods

The authors followed PRISMA guidelines and scanned all relevant medical databases for studies assessing the antidepressant potential of ketamine in patients with major depressive disorder (MDD) and bipolar disorder (BD). To evaluate possible methodological factors and design variables, the authors also specifically assessed whether studies were: repeat/single infusion, diagnosis, open-label/participant-blind infusion, pre-post/placebo-controlled design and patients’ sex.

Effect sizes were calculated either relative to placebo or relative to baseline, in case no control group was provided. To correct for bias in small studies, a Hedge’s g procedure with random effects was used. Statistical heterogeneity, publication bias and moderator variables were assessed to have an idea of other variables that might influence the reported antidepressant potential of ketamine. Statistical heterogeneity among studies was assessed using I² values, with values above 50% generally representing substantial heterogeneity.

Results

In total, 21 studies enrolling 437 patients receiving ketamine were identified that satisfied inclusion criteria:

  • 17 were single infusion studies and the majority reported data collected at 4h (11) and 24h (13) after ketamine treatment
  • 6 studies had follow-up for 7 days
  • 4 studies had follow-up for 12-14 days

In general, there are grounds to assume publication bias for single infusion studies at 4h and 24h.

Of the 21 included studies, 2 were judged to be at a high risk of bias, 13 medium risk and 6 low risk of bias.

  • In general, ketamine had a large statistical effect on depressive symptoms that was comparable across all time points
  • Effect sizes were significantly larger for repeat than single infusion at 4 h, 24 h and 7 days
  • For single infusion studies, effect sizes were large and significant at 4 h, 24 h and 7 days
  • The overall pooled effect sizes for single and repeated ketamine infusions found no difference at any time point, suggesting that the antidepressant effects of ketamine are maintained for at least 12-14 days

table3

Moderator analyses suggest that responsiveness to ketamine may vary according to diagnosis. Specifically, while ketamine produced moderate to large effects in both MDD and BD patients, the effect of a single infusion was significantly larger in MDD than BD after 24h. On the other hand, after 7 days, this pattern reversed and ketamine showed higher efficacy in BD patients. However, the small number of studies makes it tricky to draw any conclusions.

In addition, single-infusion pre-post comparisons did not differ in effect size estimation from placebo-controlled designs except for at 12-14 days, where only one study was available. In a similar vein, there were no effect size differences between single infusion studies with open-label and blinded infusions.

Of note, the meta-analysis found the percentage of males in the group was positively associated with ketamine’s antidepressant effects after 7 days, although this finding warrants replication with more data points.

There's huge room for improvement in the primary research, but this analysis shows ketamine in a promising light as an antidepressant.

There’s plenty of room for improvement in the primary research, but this meta-analysis shows ketamine in a promising light as an antidepressant.

Conclusions

The authors conclude:

Single ketamine infusions elicit a significant anti-depressant effect from 4h to 7days; the small number of studies at 12-14 days post infusion failed to reach significance. Results suggest a discrepancy in peak response time depending upon primary diagnosis – 24 h for MDD and 7 days for BD. The majority of published studies have used pre-post comparison; further placebo-controlled studies would help to clarify the effect of ketamine over time.

Limitations

This meta-analysis suffers from several limitations that are inherent in the available studies:

  • For one, there were only four studies that assessed the effect of repeated ketamine infusions, which is a shame given that maintenance of antidepressant effects is one of the key drawbacks of rapidly acting interventions
  • In addition, the authors note that their results suggest publication bias, which may be taken to indicate that several negative findings have not been published and thus could not be included in this meta-analysis
  • Also, more information about adverse effects would have been useful, especially to evaluate whether ketamine can be safely applied in a broader clinical context

Summary

This is the first meta-analysis to evaluate ketamine’s antidepressant effects. For single infusion specifically, ketamine exerts large antidepressant effects in MDD as well as BD patients that seem to last at least 7 days, while too few studies are available beyond this time point.

It’s noteworthy that the effect sizes did not differ between time points, which indicates that the effect of a single infusion remains relatively stable in the short-term. While repeated infusions were shown to provide higher effects than single infusions at least for the first week, more studies are needed to corroborate the supremacy of repeated treatment.

Before ketamine can become a clinically viable treatment option, however, this review makes it clear that more methodologically refined studies (especially RCTs with adequate placebo controls) need to be conducted. With this in mind, researchers should take these findings as an incitement to action!

High quality

High quality placebo controlled trials are needed to drive forward progress in this field.

Links

Primary paper

Coyle, C. M. and Laws, K. R. (2015), The use of ketamine as an antidepressant: a systematic review and meta-analysisHum. Psychopharmacol Clin Exp, doi: 10.1002/hup.2475. [PubMed abstract]

Other references

Aan Het Rot, M., Zarate, C. a, Charney, D. S., & Mathew, S. J. (2012). Ketamine for depression: where do we go from here? Biological Psychiatry72(7), 537–47. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2012.05.003