The psychedelic party drug ketamine, popularly known as Special K, produces an antidepressant effect, faster and more effectively than conventional antidepressants and mood stabilisers. Special K has been around since the early 1960s and has since found its way in the emergency rooms, where it is commonly used as an anaesthetic for children.
“It’s not subtle. It’s really obvious if it’s going to be effective,” Enrique Abreu, a Portland-based doctor that uses ketamine to treat depression since 2012, told The Washington Post. “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.”
Ketamine has also been used in burn centres and veterinary clinics. Apart from the positive benefits of the drug, it has been used to numb and make someone immobile, making it an infamous date-rape drug.
Nevertheless, since 2006, studies have reported the drug’s potential in treating mental health problems. In fact, experts have described it as the most significant discovery in mental health in more than half a decade due to its ability to reverse severe depression that regular antidepressants cannot treat as effectively.
The selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), the class of medicines used to treat depression, take weeks or months to actually work. A study in 2010 found that even placebos are just as good as these antidepressants.
Additionally, ketamine encourages synaptogenesis, a process where brain function is restored. It stimulates the development of new synaptic connections between neurons. However, the drug can cause intense hallucinations. It can also cause bladder problems and cognitive deficits in ketamine abusers.
Gerard Sanacora, director of the Yale Depression Research Program, says that more studies must be conducted and the drug should not be widely used until all the long-term benefits and risks have been understood. David Feifel, a psychiatrist and the director of the Centre for Advanced Treatment of Mood and Anxiety Disorders at the University of California at San Diego, adds that using ketamine for depression should be left to licensed professionals.