“The cat tranquilizer!?” That was my response when I was first told about ketamine therapy. As curious as it sounds, recent research has indicated that ketamine may be effective in treating mental disorders, including depression and anxiety.
If you’re still scratching your head, by the end of this post, you’ll have more information about how ketamine treatment works and the research behind it.
What is Ketamine Treatment?
The drug that has been used recreationally for a long time has now become a prescription medication for depression. After clinical trials showed a significant effect in treating patients with depression who had been unresponsive to other medications and therapies, ketamine treatment was approved by the FDA.
Dr. Robert Meisner reports,“If a person responds to ketamine, it can rapidly reduce suicidality (life-threatening thoughts and acts) and relieve other serious symptoms of depression. Ketamine also can be effective for treating depression combined with anxiety. Other treatments for suicidal thoughts and depression often take weeks or even months to take effect…”
I was amazed after reading these findings. This could be a giant leap forward in the understanding and treatment of mental illness.
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Why is Ketamine Treatment Useful for Mental Health?
The research is still early in the process, and just exactly how ketamine works for depression and anxiety is not well understood. There are some theories.
“One likely target for ketamine is NMDA receptors in the brain. By binding to these receptors, ketamine appears to increase the amount of a neurotransmitter called glutamate in the spaces between neurons. Glutamate then activates connections in another receptor, called the AMPA receptor.
Together, the initial blockade of NMDA receptors and activation of AMPA receptors lead to the release of other molecules that help neurons communicate with each other along new pathways. Known as synaptogenesis, this process likely affects mood, thought patterns, and cognition,” according to Robert C. Meisner, MD, is the medical director of the ketamine service in the psychiatric neurotherapeutics program at McLean Hospital.
“This is a game changer…With most medications, like valium, the anti-anxiety effect you get only lasts when it is in your system. When the valium goes away, you can get rebound anxiety. When you take ketamine, it triggers reactions in your cortex that enable brain connections to regrow. It’s the reaction to ketamine, not the presence of ketamine in the body that constitutes its effects,” says Dr. John Krystal, chief psychiatrist at Yale Medicine and one of the pioneers of ketamine research in the country.
What to Consider Before Seeking Ketamine Treatment
Potential Side Effects of Ketamine Treatment
It is important to know that there are some possible side effects, including nausea, high blood pressure, and perceptual disturbances. As someone who is concerned about side effects, especially with a compound as powerful as ketamine, I think it is important to appreciate how the therapy is administered.
What Happens During a Ketamine Treatment Session
During the session, a medical professional is in the room with you controlling the titration of the ketamine, while constantly monitoring your progress, until your optimal dose is realized. Some kind of appropriate psychotherapy should follow the ketamine infusion sessions, to facilitate the proper rewiring of the neural pathways.
These new connections offer the patient a way to develop more effective thoughts and behaviors. The formation of new neural connections is an effect that has not been observed with more traditional therapies and medications for depression.
Limitations of Ketamine Treatment
It is important to note the limitations to ketamine as well. “Patients will call me up and say they don’t want any other medication or psychotherapy, they just want ketamine, and I have to explain to them that it is very unlikely that a single dose, or even several doses of ketamine alone, will cure their depression,” says Dr. Gerard Sanacora of The Yale School of Medicine.
Instead, he explains, “I tell them it may provide rapid benefits that can be sustained with comprehensive treatment plans that could include ongoing treatments with ketamine. Additionally, it appears to help facilitate the creation new neural pathways that can help them develop resiliency and protect against the return of the depression.”
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Takeaways about Ketamine Treatment
While it can be confusing to think about drugs such as ketamine and even psilocybin (the primary compound in “magic mushrooms”) as verified treatments, because of their reputation and prolific illegal use, it can be useful to consider keeping an open mind about a therapy with such a high efficacy rate.
However, it is always important to speak with experts and fully understand all of the potential risks and benefits before going down this road. For people who have seriously struggled with depression and anxiety, and have not found much relief with other treatments, ketamine treatment offers some much-needed hope.
If you’re looking for support and consultation from a mental health professional, please know that our providers are here for you. You can reach out to us if you have any questions about our services or schedule an appointment today.