Scientists have taken a closer look at the recreational party drug ketamine to cure depression. Ketamine, sometimes referred to as ‘special k’ or ‘vitamin k’ on the party circuit is a popularly recognized as a horse tranquilizer. Ketamine is actually used to medically treat both humans and animals, because of its sedative and anesthesia effects. A new study showed that a single dose of ketamine causes a rapid improvement in depressive symptoms in rats, with results lasting longer than three weeks.
To assess the emotional state of the rats, experts used three widely accepted models of depression in rats. The first, the forced swim test, involved placing the rat in a tub of water and seeing how quickly it gave up on attempting escape. The second tested, known as learned helplessness, saw how long the rats tried to avoid shocks before just resigning and accepting the pain. Finally, a third test put the rats in unfamiliar mazes to see how hard they would work to explore for food.
Rats were considered depressed when they performed poorly on all three tests. Traditional depression medications administered daily in rats generally create improvement on all three tests. However, a single dose of ketamine administered before the forced swim test caused improvement even in the food-maze test 21 days later. This result hints that ketamine causes a fundamental and sustained physiological change that alleviates the symptoms of depression.
So how does ketamine work? Essentially, a dose of ketamine assists the brain to reform and strengthen cells. These restored brain cells are more sensitive to neurotransmitters, and this sensitivity appears to be the reason why the symptoms of depression improve.
It is important to note that the this test was done on rats not humans. In fact, while all of this news sounds very promising, don’t count on ketamine being available for the treatment of depression anytime soon. It is not safe to use ketamine to self-medicate. Ketamine may cause hallucinations, as well as impair vision, balance, and one’s perception of time. The researchers hope they can solve these problems by identifying similar drugs that produce the same benefits for depression, but do not have the same potential for abuse.