Could ketamine help people with depression and OCD?

Ketamine is an approved drug in many countries for anesthesia in adults and children. Several studies have also shown its rapid, positive effects on treating depression as well as rapid effects on treating obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Ketamine could be prescribed legally by any physician in the US because has government approval, and for this reason there are many private clinics advertising ketamine infusions. But it is still in an early stage of development, and researchers need more evidence for its safe use in individuals with these mental illnesses. The goal for the clinical researchers is to find new treatments that are fast-acting, effective and safe. It's necessary find better and faster acting medications for OCD and other severe mental illnesses.

Some new research focuses on glutamate, which is the main chemical transmitter involved in the communication between brain cells. There is increasing evidence that glutamate plays a significant role in OCD symptoms, and ketamine changes the level of glutamate in the brain. This mechanism opens new avenues of research for treatments. In the first clinical trial researchers found that a single low dose of ketamine caused an immediate decrease in OCD symptoms, and in some participants this benefit lasted up to one week.

There have been no new treatments for OCD since the 1980s so these results are very exciting for patients, families, researchers, and clinicians. Most antidepressant drugs currently available on prescription, in fact, need several months or even years to take effect and must be taken everyday.

The researchers are very careful because of ketamine’s reputation as a club drug the potential abuse of which has been demonstrated. Consuming large quantities of ketamine has been known to damage the bladder, and in some cases bladders have had to be removed. The side effects which ketamine produces including feeling dissociated (a floating or unreal sensation) and nausea. Less is known about the lasting benefits and long-term side effects.

For this reason the study of ketamine is in highly monitored research conditions, and outside those conditions experts cannot carefully screen patients for abuse potential or have the medical backup to respond in case of emergency. These are serious concerns that motivate all of the researchers to find about more, scientifically, about ketamine before they routinely use it for treatment of depression and OCD.

It's necessary that the researchers know more about how ketamine works in the brain. It could be a important tool to help researchers learn more about the links between brain and behavior.