It isn't often that a prescription product repurposed on the street then returns to the clinic. But that's just what's happening with ketamine, sold as a generic and by Pfizer ($PFE) under the brand names Ketalar and Ketaject (and illegally as Special K). Studies testing the injectable against depression are yielding some dramatic results, described by patients in language familiar to recreational users.
Researchers from the National Institute for Mental Health and from Houston's Ben Taub General Hospital have administered ketamine to severely depressed patients with almost instantaneous results, NPR reports. Yale scientists have pinpointed a potential explanation: Ketamine appears to affect glutamate in the brain, triggering new connections among brain cells.
"I feel that something's lifted or feel that I've never been depressed in my life," was how NIMH researcher Carlos Zarate described his ketamine patients' reactions. "And it was a different experience from feeling high. This was feeling that something has been removed." One Ben Taub study patient, who believes she got ketamine, not placebo, said she went home feeling "no more fogginess, no more heaviness." Both of them reactions that LA Weekly deemed obvious. "Any raver could have told you this," the paper said.
Ketamine has serious potential side effects, including hallucinations during its infusion--and, not insignificantly, addiction. But unlike drugs already approved as antidepressants, the injectable appears to work quickly, a big advantage for patients in crisis. Further study is on the way; the Ben Taub researchers say that if their trial shows that ketamine outperforms a placebo, they plan to conduct a longer-term study to determine whether its effects could be long-lasting.