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Ketamine Works as a Fast-Acting Antidepressant, But the Full Effects Are Still Unknown

Ketamine Works as a Fast-Acting Antidepressant, But the Full Effects Are Still Unknown

etamine leads something of a double life, straddling the line between medical science and party drug. Since it’s invention in the early 1960s, ketamine has enjoyed a quiet existence as a veterinary and pediatric anesthetic given in high doses. But in a second, wilder life, ketamine’s effects at lower doses—a profound sense of dissociation from self and body—became an illicit favorite among psychedelic enthusiasts. Pioneering neuroscientist John Lilly, who famously attempted to facilitate communication between humans and dolphins, used the drug in the late 1970s during experiments in sensory deprivation tanks. By the 1990s, the drug had made its way to the dance floor as “special K.”

More recently, ketamine has taken on a third, wholly unexpected role. Since the early 2000s, the drug has been studied as a uniquely powerful medication for treating severe depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). When given as an intravenous infusion, ketamine can lift symptoms of depression and OCD from patients who fail to respond to common antidepressants like Prozac and even resist treatments like electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).

Exactly how ketamine produces antidepressant effects remains unclear, however. Antidepressants like Prozac are Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) that increase levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain, which is believed to boost mood. Ketamine’s main mechanism of action to produce dissociative anesthetic effects, on the other hand, depends on another neurotransmitter, glutamate.

“The prevailing hypothesis for ketamine’s antidepressant effect is that it blocks a receptor (or docking port) for glutamate,” says Carolyn Rodriguez, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford who has conducted some of the pioneering research into ketamine as an OCD treatment.

However, new research suggests that ketamine’s influence on glutamate receptors, and specifically the NMDA receptor, may not be the sole cause of its antidepressant effects. According to a recent study in the American Journal of Psychiatry by Rodriguez and her Stanford colleagues, ketamine might also activate a third system in the brain: opioid receptors.

Ketamine is known to bind weakly to the mu opioid receptor, acting as an agonist to produce a physiological response at the same site in the brain where narcotics like morphine exert their influence. It’s also known that opioids can have antidepressant effects, says Alan Schatzberg, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford and co-author of the new study.

It never made sense to Schatzberg that ketamine’s antidepressant effects were a result of blocking the glutamate receptors, as attempts to use other glutamate-blocking drugs as antidepressants have largely failed. The Stanford psychiatrist, who has spent his career studying depression, wondered if researchers were unknowingly activating opioid receptors with ketamine.

“You could test this by using an antagonist of the opioid system to see if you blocked the effect in people who are ketamine responders,” he says. “And that’s what we did.”

The researchers enlisted 12 subjects with treatment-resistant depression and gave them either an infusion of ketamine preceded by a placebo, or ketamine preceded by a dose of naltrexone, an opioid receptor blocker. Of those, seven subjects responded to the ketamine with placebo, “and it was very dramatic,” Schatzberg says, with depression lifting by the next day. “But in the other condition, they showed no effect,” suggesting it was the opioid receptor activity, not blocking glutamate receptors, that was responsible.

While opioid blockers prevented ketamine from activating the associated receptors, it did not block the drugs dissociative effects, suggesting dissociation alone won’t affect depression. “It’s not that, ‘hey, we’ll get you a little weird and you’ll get the effect,’” Schatzberg says.

The appeal of ketamine’s use as an antidepressant is clear enough. While more typical antidepressants may require six to eight weeks to produce benefits, ketamine works within hours.

“Our patients are asked to hang in there until the medication and talk therapy takes effect,” says Carlos Zarate, chief of the experimental therapeutics and pathophysiology branch of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) who was not associated with the new study. While waiting for traditional treatments to kick in, patients “may lose their friends or even attempt suicide.”

But the study linking ketamine to opioid activity means an extra dose of caution is required. While ketamine acts quickly, the anti-depressive effects of the drug only last for a few days to a week, meaning repeat doses would be needed in practice. Researchers and clinicians should consider the risk of addiction in long-term use, Schatzberg says. “You’re going to eventually get into some form of tolerance I think, and that’s not good.”

However, the new finding is based on just seven subjects, and it still needs to be replicated by other scientists, says Yale professor of psychiatry Greg Sanacora, who was not involved in the new study. And even if the trial is replicated, it would not prove ketamine’s opioid activity is responsible for its antidepressant effects.

“It doesn’t show that at all,” says Sanacora, who studies glutamate, mood disorders and ketamine. “It shows that the opioid system needs to be functioning in order to get this response.”

Sanacora compares the new study to using antibiotics to treat an ear infection. If you administered an additional drug that blocks absorption of antibiotics in the stomach, you would block treatment of the ear infection, but you wouldn’t conclude that antibiotics fight ear infections through stomach absorption—you just need a normally functioning stomach to allow the antibiotic to do its job. Similarly, opioid receptors might need to be functioning normally for ketamine to produce antidepressant effects, even if opioid activity is not directly responsible for those effects.

Complicating matters further, placebos often cause patients to experience less pain, but opioid blockers like naltrexone have been shown to prevent this response, according to Sanacora. It could be, he suggests, that all the apparatus of the clinic—the nursing staff, the equipment—exerted a placebo effect that is mediated by the brain’s opioid system, and the patients who received naltrexone simply did not respond to that placebo effect

“That’s a very important and powerful tool that is in all of medicine, not just in psychiatry,” Sanacora says. “And we know that the opiate system is involved, to some extent, in that type of response.”

It’s also possible, the researchers note in the paper, that ketamine’s action at the glutamate receptor is still important. “Ketamine acts in three distinct phases—rapid effects, sustained effects and return to baseline,” Rodriguez says. Opioid signaling may turn out to mediate ketamine’s rapid effects, while “the glutamate system may be responsible for the sustaining effects after ketamine is metabolized.”

One interpretation is that ketamine blocks glutamate receptors on neurons that are inhibitory, meaning they signal other neurons to fire fewer signals. By blocking these neurons from firing, ketamine may enhance glutamate activity in the rest of the brain, producing anti-depressive effects that persist after the opioid activity dies down.

“The reality is it’s in a gray zone,” Sanacora says. “This is just one small piece of a very large puzzle or concern that we really need to look at the data in total.”

That data is forthcoming. Results from a Janssen Pharmaceuticals clinical trial using esketamine, an isomer of ketamine, and involving hundreds of subjects will soon become public, according to Sanacora, who has consulted for the company. And at NIMH, Zarate and colleagues are studying hydroxynorketamine, a metabolite of ketamine that may provide the same benefits but without the dissociative side effects

Ketamine Works as a Fast-Acting Antidepressant, But the Full Effects Are Still Unknown

A new study suggests that ketamine activates the brain’s opioid receptors, complicating its use to treat clinical depression

Ketamine Syringe
Ketamine syringe, 10mg held by a healthcare professional. (Peter Cripps / Alamy Stock Photo)

By Jon KelveySEPTEMBER 11, 2018777110231.1K

Ketamine leads something of a double life, straddling the line between medical science and party drug. Since it’s invention in the early 1960s, ketamine has enjoyed a quiet existence as a veterinary and pediatric anesthetic given in high doses. But in a second, wilder life, ketamine’s effects at lower doses—a profound sense of dissociation from self and body—became an illicit favorite among psychedelic enthusiasts. Pioneering neuroscientist John Lilly, who famously attempted to facilitate communication between humans and dolphins, used the drug in the late 1970s during experiments in sensory deprivation tanks. By the 1990s, the drug had made its way to the dance floor as “special K.”

More recently, ketamine has taken on a third, wholly unexpected role. Since the early 2000s, the drug has been studied as a uniquely powerful medication for treating severe depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). When given as an intravenous infusion, ketamine can lift symptoms of depression and OCD from patients who fail to respond to common antidepressants like Prozac and even resist treatments like electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).

Exactly how ketamine produces antidepressant effects remains unclear, however. Antidepressants like Prozac are Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) that increase levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain, which is believed to boost mood. Ketamine’s main mechanism of action to produce dissociative anesthetic effects, on the other hand, depends on another neurotransmitter, glutamate.

“The prevailing hypothesis for ketamine’s antidepressant effect is that it blocks a receptor (or docking port) for glutamate,” says Carolyn Rodriguez, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford who has conducted some of the pioneering research into ketamine as an OCD treatment.

However, new research suggests that ketamine’s influence on glutamate receptors, and specifically the NMDA receptor, may not be the sole cause of its antidepressant effects. According to a recent study in the American Journal of Psychiatry by Rodriguez and her Stanford colleagues, ketamine might also activate a third system in the brain: opioid receptors.

Ketamine is known to bind weakly to the mu opioid receptor, acting as an agonist to produce a physiological response at the same site in the brain where narcotics like morphine exert their influence. It’s also known that opioids can have antidepressant effects, says Alan Schatzberg, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford and co-author of the new study.

It never made sense to Schatzberg that ketamine’s antidepressant effects were a result of blocking the glutamate receptors, as attempts to use other glutamate-blocking drugs as antidepressants have largely failed. The Stanford psychiatrist, who has spent his career studying depression, wondered if researchers were unknowingly activating opioid receptors with ketamine.

“You could test this by using an antagonist of the opioid system to see if you blocked the effect in people who are ketamine responders,” he says. “And that’s what we did.”

The researchers enlisted 12 subjects with treatment-resistant depression and gave them either an infusion of ketamine preceded by a placebo, or ketamine preceded by a dose of naltrexone, an opioid receptor blocker. Of those, seven subjects responded to the ketamine with placebo, “and it was very dramatic,” Schatzberg says, with depression lifting by the next day. “But in the other condition, they showed no effect,” suggesting it was the opioid receptor activity, not blocking glutamate receptors, that was responsible.

While opioid blockers prevented ketamine from activating the associated receptors, it did not block the drugs dissociative effects, suggesting dissociation alone won’t affect depression. “It’s not that, ‘hey, we’ll get you a little weird and you’ll get the effect,’” Schatzberg says.

The appeal of ketamine’s use as an antidepressant is clear enough. While more typical antidepressants may require six to eight weeks to produce benefits, ketamine works within hours.

“Our patients are asked to hang in there until the medication and talk therapy takes effect,” says Carlos Zarate, chief of the experimental therapeutics and pathophysiology branch of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) who was not associated with the new study. While waiting for traditional treatments to kick in, patients “may lose their friends or even attempt suicide.”

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A treatment that works within 24 hours? “That’s huge.”

A vial of ketamine. The drug is used primarily as an anesthetic but is gaining popularity as an effective antidepressant.
A vial of ketamine. The drug is used primarily as an anesthetic but is gaining popularity as an effective antidepressant. (Wikimedia Commons)

But the study linking ketamine to opioid activity means an extra dose of caution is required. While ketamine acts quickly, the anti-depressive effects of the drug only last for a few days to a week, meaning repeat doses would be needed in practice. Researchers and clinicians should consider the risk of addiction in long-term use, Schatzberg says. “You’re going to eventually get into some form of tolerance I think, and that’s not good.”

However, the new finding is based on just seven subjects, and it still needs to be replicated by other scientists, says Yale professor of psychiatry Greg Sanacora, who was not involved in the new study. And even if the trial is replicated, it would not prove ketamine’s opioid activity is responsible for its antidepressant effects.

“It doesn’t show that at all,” says Sanacora, who studies glutamate, mood disorders and ketamine. “It shows that the opioid system needs to be functioning in order to get this response.”

Sanacora compares the new study to using antibiotics to treat an ear infection. If you administered an additional drug that blocks absorption of antibiotics in the stomach, you would block treatment of the ear infection, but you wouldn’t conclude that antibiotics fight ear infections through stomach absorption—you just need a normally functioning stomach to allow the antibiotic to do its job. Similarly, opioid receptors might need to be functioning normally for ketamine to produce antidepressant effects, even if opioid activity is not directly responsible for those effects.

Complicating matters further, placebos often cause patients to experience less pain, but opioid blockers like naltrexone have been shown to prevent this response, according to Sanacora. It could be, he suggests, that all the apparatus of the clinic—the nursing staff, the equipment—exerted a placebo effect that is mediated by the brain’s opioid system, and the patients who received naltrexone simply did not respond to that placebo effect.

“That’s a very important and powerful tool that is in all of medicine, not just in psychiatry,” Sanacora says. “And we know that the opiate system is involved, to some extent, in that type of response.”

It’s also possible, the researchers note in the paper, that ketamine’s action at the glutamate receptor is still important. “Ketamine acts in three distinct phases—rapid effects, sustained effects and return to baseline,” Rodriguez says. Opioid signaling may turn out to mediate ketamine’s rapid effects, while “the glutamate system may be responsible for the sustaining effects after ketamine is metabolized.”

One interpretation is that ketamine blocks glutamate receptors on neurons that are inhibitory, meaning they signal other neurons to fire fewer signals. By blocking these neurons from firing, ketamine may enhance glutamate activity in the rest of the brain, producing anti-depressive effects that persist after the opioid activity dies down.

“The reality is it’s in a gray zone,” Sanacora says. “This is just one small piece of a very large puzzle or concern that we really need to look at the data in total.”

That data is forthcoming. Results from a Janssen Pharmaceuticals clinical trial using esketamine, an isomer of ketamine, and involving hundreds of subjects will soon become public, according to Sanacora, who has consulted for the company. And at NIMH, Zarate and colleagues are studying hydroxynorketamine, a metabolite of ketamine that may provide the same benefits but without the dissociative side effects.

The ultimate goal of all this research is to find a ketamine-like drug with fewer liabilities, and that aim is bringing researchers back to the fundamentals of science.

“For me, one of the exciting parts of this study is that it suggests that ketamine’s mechanism is complicated, it acts on different receptors beyond glutamate and is the start of this exciting dialogue,” Rodriguez says. “Sometimes great science raises more questions than answers.”











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Ketamine Could Be the Key to Reversing America’s Rising Suicide Rate

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Ketamine Could Be the Key to Reversing America’s Rising Suicide Rate

A version of the club drug is expected to be approved for depression in March. Researchers think it could help treat suicidal thinking.

Joe Wright has no doubt that ketamine saved his life. A 34-year-old high school teacher who writes poetry every day on a typewriter, Wright was plagued by suicidal impulses for years. The thoughts started coming on when he was a high schooler himself, on Staten Island, N.Y., and intensified during his first year of college. “It was an internal monologue, emphatic on how pointless it is to exist,” he says. “It’s like being ambushed by your own brain.”

He first tried to kill himself by swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills the summer after his sophomore year. Years of treatment with Prozac, Zoloft, Wellbutrin, and other antidepressants followed, but the desire for an end was never fully resolved. He started cutting himself on his arms and legs with a pencil-sharpener blade. Sometimes he’d burn himself with cigarettes. He remembers few details about his second and third suicide attempts. They were halfhearted; he drank himself into a stupor and once added Xanax into the mix.

Wright decided to try again in 2016, this time using a cocktail of drugs he’d ground into a powder. As he tells the story now, he was preparing to mix the powder into water and drink it when his dog jumped onto his lap. Suddenly he had a moment of clarity that shocked him into action. He started doing research and came upon a Columbia University study of a pharmaceutical treatment for severe depression and suicidality. It involved an infusion of ketamine, a decades-old anesthetic that’s also an infamous party drug. He immediately volunteered.

His first—and only—ketamine infusion made him feel dreamlike, goofy, and euphoric. He almost immediately started feeling more hopeful about life. He was more receptive to therapy. Less than a year later, he married. Today he says his dark moods are remote and manageable. Suicidal thoughts are largely gone. “If they had told me how much it would affect me, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Wright says. “It is unconscionable that it is not already approved for suicidal patients.”

The reasons it isn’t aren’t strictly medical. Over the past three decades, pharmaceutical companies have conducted hundreds of trials for at least 10 antidepressants to treat severe PMS, social anxiety disorder, and any number of conditions. What they’ve almost never done is test their drugs on the sickest people, those on the verge of suicide. There are ethical considerations: Doctors don’t want to give a placebo to a person who’s about to kill himself. And reputational concerns: A suicide in a drug trial could hurt a medication’s sales prospects.

The risk-benefit calculation has changed amid the suicide epidemic in the U.S. From 1999 to 2016, the rate of suicides increased by 30 percent. It’s now the second-leading cause of death for 10- to 34-year-olds, behind accidents. (Globally the opposite is true: Suicide is decreasing.) Growing economic disparity, returning veterans traumatized by war, the opioid crisis, easy access to guns—these have all been cited as reasons for the rise in America. There’s been no breakthrough in easing any of these circumstances.

But there is, finally, a serious quest for a suicide cure. Ketamine is at the center, and crucially the pharmaceutical industry now sees a path. The first ketamine-based drug, from Johnson & Johnson, could be approved for treatment-resistant depression by March and suicidal thinking within two years. Allergan Plc is not far behind in developing its own fast-acting antidepressant that could help suicidal patients. How this happened is one of the most hopeful tales of scientific research in recent memory.

relates to Ketamine Could Be the Key to Reversing America’s Rising Suicide Rate
Dennis Charney at Mount Sinai.PHOTOGRAPHER: MAX AGUILERA-HELLWEG FOR BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK

Dennis Charney, dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, works from an office filled with family pictures, diplomas, and awards from a long career in research. One thing on the wall is different from the rest: a patent for the use of a nasal-spray form of ketamine as a treatment for suicidal patients. The story of the drug is in some ways the story of Charney’s career.

In the 1990s he was a psychiatry professor, mentoring then associate professor John Krystal at Yale and trying to figure out how a deficit of serotonin played into depression. Back then, depression research was all about serotonin. The 1987 approval of Prozac, the first selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, or SSRI, ushered in an era of what people in the industry call me-too drug development, research that seeks to improve on existing medicines rather than exploring new approaches. Within this narrow range, pharmaceutical companies churned out blockbuster after blockbuster. One in eight Americans age 12 and older reported using antidepressants within the past month, according to a survey conducted from 2011 to 2014 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Charney was a depression guy; Krystal was interested in schizophrenia. Their curiosity led them to the same place: the glutamate system, what Krystal calls the “main information highway of the higher brain.” (Glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter, which helps brain cells communicate. It’s considered crucial in learning and memory formation.) They had already used ketamine to temporarily produce schizophrenia-like symptoms, to better understand glutamate’s role in that condition. In the mid-1990s they decided to conduct a single-dose study of ketamine on nine patients (two ultimately dropped out) at the Yale-affiliated VA Connecticut Healthcare System in West Haven to see how depressed people would react to the drug.

“If we had done the typical thing … we would have completely missed the antidepressant effect”

Outside the field of anesthesiology, ketamine is known, if it’s known at all, for its abuse potential. Street users sometimes take doses large enough to enter what’s known as a “K hole,” a state in which they’re unable to interact with the world around them. Over the course of a day, those recreational doses can be as much as 100 times greater than the tiny amount Charney and Krystal were planning to give to patients. Nonetheless, they decided to monitor patients for 72 hours—well beyond the two hours that ketamine produces obvious behavioral effects—just to be careful not to miss any negative effects that might crop up. “If we had done the typical thing that we do with these drug tests,” Krystal says, “we would have completely missed the antidepressant effect of ketamine.”

Checking on patients four hours after the drug had been administered, the researchers saw something unexpected. “To our surprise,” Charney says, “the patients started saying they were better, they were better in a few hours.” This was unheard of. Antidepressants are known for taking weeks or months to work, and about a third of patients aren’t sufficiently helped by the drugs. “We were shocked,” says Krystal, who now chairs the Yale psychiatry department. “We didn’t submit the results for publication for several years.”

When Charney and Krystal did publish their findings, in 2000, they attracted almost no notice. Perhaps that was because the trial was so small and the results were almost too good to be true. Or maybe it was ketamine’s reputation as an illicit drug. Or the side effects, which have always been problematic: Ketamine can cause patients to disassociate, meaning they enter a state in which they feel as if their mind and body aren’t connected.

But probably none of these factors mattered as much as the bald economic reality. The pharmaceutical industry is not in the business of spending hundreds of millions of dollars to do large-scale studies of an old, cheap drug like ketamine. Originally developed as a safer alternative to the anesthetic phencyclidine, better known as PCP or angel dust, ketamine has been approved since 1970. There’s rarely profit in developing a medication that’s been off patent a long time, even if scientists find an entirely new use for it.

Somehow, even with all of this baggage, research into ketamine inched forward. The small study that almost wasn’t published has now been cited more than 2,000 times.

relates to Ketamine Could Be the Key to Reversing America’s Rising Suicide Rate
John Mann in his office at Columbia’s New York State Psychiatric Institute. 

Suicide is described in medicine as resulting from a range of mental disorders and hardships—a tragedy with many possible roots. Conditions such as severe depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia are known risk factors. Childhood trauma or abuse may also be a contributor, and there may be genetic risk factors as well.

From these facts, John Mann, an Australian-born psychiatrist with a doctorate in neurochemistry, made a leap. If suicide has many causes, he hypothesized, then all suicidal brains might have certain characteristics in common. He’s since done some of the most high-profile work to illuminate what researchers call the biology of suicide. The phrase itself represents a bold idea—that there’s an underlying physiological susceptibility to suicide, apart from depression or another psychiatric disorder.

Mann moved to New York in 1978, and in 1982, at Cornell University, he started collecting the brains of people who’d killed themselves. He recruited Victoria Arango, now a leading expert in the field of suicide biology. The practice of studying postmortem brain tissue had largely fallen out of favor, and Mann wanted to reboot it. “He was very proud to take me to the freezer,” Arango says of the day Mann introduced her to the brain collection, which then numbered about 15. “I said, ‘What am I supposed to do with this?’ ”

relates to Ketamine Could Be the Key to Reversing America’s Rising Suicide Rate
Some of Mann’s brain collection. 

They took the work, and the brains, first to the University of Pittsburgh, and then, in 1994, to Columbia. They’ve now amassed a collection of some 1,000 human brains—some from suicide victims, the others, control brains—filed neatly in freezers kept at –112F. The small Balkan country of Macedonia contributes the newest brains, thanks to a Columbia faculty member from there who helped arrange it. The Macedonian brains are frozen immediately after being removed and flown in trunks, chaperoned, some 4,700 miles to end up in shoe-box-size, QR-coded black boxes. Inside are dissected sections of pink tissue in plastic bags notated with markers: right side, left side, date of collection.

In the early 1990s, Mann and Arango discovered that depressed patients who killed themselves have subtle alterations in serotonin in certain regions of the brain. Mann remembers sitting with Arango and neurophysiologist Mark Underwood, her husband and longtime research partner, and analyzing the parts of the brain affected by the deficit. They struggled to make sense of it, until it dawned on them that these were the same brain regions described in a famous psychiatric case study. In 1848, Phineas Gage, an American railroad worker, was impaled through the skull by a 43-inch-long tamping iron when the explosives he was working with went off prematurely. He survived, but his personality was permanently altered. In a paper titled “Recovery From the Passage of an Iron Bar Through the Head,” his doctor wrote that Gage’s “animal propensities” had emerged and described him as using the “grossest profanity.” Modern research has shown that the tamping iron destroyed key areas of the brain involved in inhibition—the same areas that were altered in the depressed patients who’d committed suicide. For the group, this was a clue that the differences in the brain of suicidal patients were anatomically important.

relates to Ketamine Could Be the Key to Reversing America’s Rising Suicide Rate
Columbia’s Victoria Arango. 

“Most people inhibit suicide. They find a reason not to do it,” Underwood says. Thanks to subtle changes in the part of the brain that might normally control inhibition and top-down control, people who kill themselves “don’t find a reason not to do it,” he says.

About eight years ago, Mann saw ketamine research taking off in other corners of the scientific world and added the drug to his own work. In one trial, his group found that ketamine treatment could ease suicidal thoughts in 24 hours more effectively than a control drug. Crucially, they found that the antisuicidal effects of ketamine were to some extent independent of the antidepressant effect of the drug, which helped support their thesis that suicidal impulses aren’t necessarily just a byproduct of depression. It was this study, led by Michael Grunebaum, a colleague of Mann’s, that made a believer of Joe Wright.

“It’s like you have 50 pounds on your shoulders, and the ketamine takes 40 pounds off”

In 2000, the National Institutes of Health hired Charney to run both mood disorder and experimental drug research. It was the perfect place for him to forge ahead with ketamine. There he did the work to replicate what he and his colleagues at Yale had discovered. In a study published in 2006, led by researcher Carlos Zarate Jr., who now oversees NIH studies of ketamine and suicidality, an NIH team found that patients had “robust and rapid antidepressant effects” from a single dose of the drug within two hours. “We could not believe it. In the first few subjects we were like, ‘Oh, you can always find one patient or two who gets better,’ ” Zarate recalls.

In a 2009 study done at Mount Sinai, patients suffering from treatment-resistant depression showed rapid improvement in suicidal thinking within 24 hours. The next year, Zarate’s group demonstrated antisuicidal effects within 40 minutes. “That you could replicate the findings, the rapid findings, was quite eerie,” Zarate says.

Finally ketamine crossed back into commercial drug development. In 2009, Johnson & Johnson lured away Husseini Manji, a prominent NIH researcher who’d worked on the drug, to run its neuroscience division. J&J didn’t hire him explicitly to develop ketamine into a new pharmaceutical, but a few years into his tenure, Manji decided to look into it. This time it would come in a nasal-spray form of esketamine, a close chemical cousin. That would allow for patent protection. Further, the nasal spray removes some of the challenges that an IV form of the drug would present. Psychiatrists, for one thing, aren’t typically equipped to administer IV drugs in their offices.

While these wheels were slowly turning, some doctors—mostly psychiatrists and anesthesiologists—took action. Around 2012 they started opening ketamine clinics. Dozens have now popped up in major metropolitan areas. Insurance typically won’t touch it, but at these centers people can pay about $500 for an infusion of the drug. It was at one time a cultural phenomenon—a 2015 Bloomberg Businessweek story called it “the club drug cure.” Since then, the sense of novelty has dissipated. In September the American Society of Ketamine Physicians convened its first medical meeting about the unconventional use of the drug.

“You are literally saving lives,” Steven Mandel, an anesthesiologist-turned-ketamine provider, told a room of about 100 people, mostly doctors and nurse practitioners, who gathered in Austin to hear him and other early adopters talk about how they use the drug. Sporadic cheers interrupted the speakers as they presented anecdotes about its effectiveness.

There were also issues to address. A consensus statementin JAMA Psychiatry published in 2017 said there was an “urgent need for some guidance” on ketamine use. The authors were particularly concerned with the lack of data about the safety of prolonged use of the drug in people with mood disorders, citing “major gaps” in the medical community’s knowledge about its long-term impact.

The context for the off-label use of ketamine is a shrinking landscape for psychiatry treatment. An effort to deinstitutionalize the U.S. mental health system, which took hold in the 1960s, has almost resulted in the disappearance of psychiatric hospitals and even psychiatric beds within general hospitals. There were 37,679 psychiatric beds in state hospitals in 2016, down from 558,922 in 1955, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center. Today a person is often discharged from a hospital within days of a suicide attempt, setting up a risky situation in which someone who may not have fully recovered ends up at home with a bunch of antidepressants that could take weeks to lift his mood, if they work at all.

A ketamine clinic can be the way out of this scenario—for people with access and means. For Dana Manning, a 53-year-old Maine resident who suffers from bipolar disorder, $500 is out of reach. “I want to die every day,” she says.

After trying to end her life in 2003 by overdosing on a cocktail of drugs including Xanax and Percocet, Manning tried virtually every drug approved for bipolar disorder. None stopped the mood swings. In 2010 the depression came back so intensely that she could barely get out of bed and had to quit her job as a medical records specialist. Electroconvulsive therapy, the last-ditch treatment for depressed patients who don’t respond to drugs, didn’t help.

Her psychiatrist went deep into the medical literature to find options and finally suggested ketamine. He was even able to get the state Medicaid program to cover it, she says. She received a total of four weekly infusions before she moved to Pennsylvania, where there were more family members nearby to care for her.

The first several weeks following her ketamine regimen were “the only time I can say I have felt normal” in 15 years, she says. “It’s like you have 50 pounds on your shoulders, and the ketamine takes 40 pounds off.”

She’s now back in Maine, and the depression has returned. Her current Medicare insurance won’t cover ketamine. She lives on $1,300 a month in disability income. “Knowing it is there and I can’t have it is beyond frustrating,” she says.

relates to Ketamine Could Be the Key to Reversing America’s Rising Suicide Rate
Mark Underwood at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. 

Ketamine is considered a “dirty” drug by scientists—it affects so many pathways and systems in the brain at the same time that it’s hard to single out the exact reason it works in the patients it does help. That’s one reason researchers continue to look for better versions of the drug. Another, of course, is that new versions are patentable. Should Johnson & Johnson’s esketamine hit the market, the ketamine pioneers and their research institutions stand to benefit. Yale’s Krystal, NIH’s Zarate, and Sinai’s Charney, all of whom are on the patent on Charney’s wall, will collect royalties based on the drug’s sales. J&J hasn’t said anything about potential pricing, but there’s every reason to believe the biggest breakthrough in depression treatment since Prozac will be expensive.

The company’s initial esketamine study in suicidal patients involved 68 people at high risk. To avoid concerns about using placebos on actively suicidal subjects, everyone received antidepressants and other standard treatments. About 40 percent of those who received esketamine were deemed no longer at risk of killing themselves within 24 hours. Two much larger trials are under way.

When Johnson & Johnson unveiled data from its esketamine study in treatment-resistant depression at the American Psychiatric Association meeting in May, the presentation was jammed. Esketamine could become the first-ever rapid-acting antidepressant, and physicians and investors are clamoring for any information about how it works. The results in suicidal patients should come later this year and could pave the way for a Food and Drug Administration filing for use in suicidal depressed patients in 2020. Allergan expects to have results from its suicide study next year, too.

“The truth is, what everybody cares about is, do they decrease suicide attempts?” says Gregory Simon, a psychiatrist and mental health researcher at Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute. “That is an incredibly important question that we hope to be able to answer, and we are planning for when these treatments become available.”

Exactly how ketamine and its cousin esketamine work is still the subject of intense debate. In essence, the drugs appear to provide a quick molecular reset button for brains impaired by stress or depression. Both ketamine and esketamine release a burst of glutamate. This, in turn, may trigger the growth of synapses, or neural connections, in brain areas that may play a role in mood and the ability to feel pleasure. It’s possible the drug works to prevent suicide by boosting those circuits while also reestablishing some of the inhibition needed to prevent a person from killing himself. “We certainly think that esketamine is working exactly on the circuitry of depression,” Manji says. “Are we homing in exactly on where suicidal ideation resides?” His former colleagues at NIH are trying to find that spot in the brain as well. Using polysomnography—sleep tests in which patients have nodes connected to various parts of their head to monitor brain activity—as well as MRIs and positron emission tomography, or PET scans, researchers can see how a patient’s brain responds to ketamine, to better understand exactly what it’s doing to quash suicidal thinking.

Concerns about the side effects of ketamine-style drugs linger. Some patients taking esketamine have reported experiencing disassociation symptoms. Johnson & Johnson calls the effects manageable and says they cropped up within an hour of the treatment, a period in which a person on the drug would likely be kept in the doctor’s office for monitoring. Some patients also experienced modest spikes in blood pressure within the same timeframe.

Nasal-spray dosing brings other issues. The Black Dog Institute in Australia and the University of New South Wales in Sydney, which teamed up to study a nasal-spray form of ketamine, published their findings last March in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. The researchers found that absorption rates were variable among patients. J&J says its own studies with esketamine contradict these findings.

But in the wake of the opioid crisis, perhaps the biggest worry is that loosening the reins too much on the use of ketamine and similar drugs could lead to a new abuse crisis. That’s why Wall Street analysts are particularly excited by Allergan’s rapid-acting antidepressant, rapastinel, which is about a year behind esketamine in testing. Researchers say it likely acts on the same target in the brain as ketamine, the NMDA receptor, but in a more subtle way that may avoid the disassociation side effects and abuse potential. Studies in lab animals show the drug doesn’t lead creatures to seek more of it, as they sometimes do with ketamine, says Allergan Vice President Armin Szegedi. Allergan’s medicine is an IV drug, but the company is developing an oral drug.

For its suicide study, Allergan is working hard to enroll veterans, one of the populations most affected by the recent spike in suicides, and has included several U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers as sites in the trial. More than 6,000 veterans died by suicide each year from 2008 to 2016, a rate that’s 50 percent higher than in the general population even after adjusting for demographics, according to VA data.

“How the brain mediates what makes us who we are is still a mystery, and maybe we will never fully understand it,” Szegedi says. “What really changed the landscape here is you had clinical data showing ‘This really does the trick.’ Once you find something in the darkness, you really have to figure out: Can you do something better, faster, safer?”

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, the National Suicide Prevention hotline is 1 (800) 273 8255.

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Ketamine Is Showing Early Success With Treating OCD

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By the time she signed up for an experimental ketamine study, one young mother’s obsessive compulsive disorder had forced her to give up her daughter for adoption. “When the baby was just a couple of days old it hit her like an injection of anxiety,” Carolyn Rodriguez, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, tells me about her participant. “She was having difficulties even with changing the baby’s diapers.”

Another participant suffering from contamination obsessions would brush his teeth compulsively, despite painful and bleeding gums. “Eventually he avoided brushing and dental hygiene altogether, and then ended up losing a fair amount of his teeth,” Rodriguez says.

Rather than being a “personality quirk,” she emphasizes, OCD can be debilitating and even life threatening—one in seven adults with the condition will attempt suicide in their lifetime. Existing treatments—which include serotonin reuptake inhibitors (the group of medications that SSRIs belong to), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure and response prevention (ERP)—help in around 50 percent of cases.

Rodriguez is two years into a five-year study of the effects of ketamine on OCD symptoms. So far, she has seen promising results. In 2013, she conducted the first randomized controlled study of intravenous ketamine infusions for OCD sufferers. Each patient got a 40-minute infusion at a dose of 0.5 mg per kg. Half of those given ketamine, rather than saline, still reported at least a 35 percent reduction in obsessive and compulsive symptoms (such as cleaning or checking rituals or uncontrollable taboo thoughts) after one week.

“Patients said it was as if the weight of OCD had been lifted,” she recalls. “People were really as surprised as I was.”

Ketamine acts far more rapidly than existing treatments, which can take months to have an effect and, in the case of talking therapy, require a lot of determination. One patient, a high school teacher, told Rodriguez the treatment was like a “vacation” from her condition.

While SSRIs work on serotonin in the brain, ketamine acts on another neurotransmitter called glutamate. Though scientists don’t know what type of imbalance in neurotransmitters cause OCD for sure, glutamate abnormalities have been linked with the condition.

GLUTAMATE ABNORMALITIES IN OBSESSIVE COMPULSIVE DISORDER NEUROBIOLOGY, PATHOPHYSIOLOGY, AND TREATMENT

Rodriguez’s research is pioneering in the scientific world but ketamine clinics across the US are already offering infusions as a treatment for OCD. These clinics primarily treat depression, PTSD and chronic pain, with OCD as a relatively recent addition which is taken up by a small proportion of patients. Ketamine isn’t FDA-approved for these uses but, as it is legal as an anaesthetic, it can be administered off-label.

Rodriguez is in two minds about the use of ketamine for OCD in the absence of the same body of research that backs ketamine as a treatment for depression.

“I’ve seen it work and some patients really benefit from it,” she says. “I think it’s important for patients who are in dire straits—so, individuals who are suicidal, have tried every possible medication and just continue to suffer.”

But Rodriguez has concerns about the infusions’ side effects, which can include nausea, vomiting and disassociation. She compares this floating feeling to getting “nitrous oxide at the dentist.” The sensation does not match the intensity of a K-hole (or ketamine high), but participants aren’t allowed to drive for 24 hours after having the treatment.

Treatment center Ketamine Clinics of Los Angeles began administering the drug for OCD after patients who experienced obsessions and compulsions alongside other conditions found it worked on these symptoms too. Apart from Antarctica, the clinic has received visitors from every continent.

“We were very gratified with the results,” Steven L. Mandel, the center’s president, tells me. “They can shake hands again, they can go to a public toilet without it being an hour’s worth of rituals.”

K for OCD

euris “Jerry” Rivas, a native of New York, was diagnosed with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder when he was 15. Obsessions with organizing and reorganizing the belongings in his bedroom — posters, comic books, videos — took over most of his life.

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Forced by germ obsessions to compulsively wash and rewash his hands, he started wearing gloves all day to both protect him from the germs and stop him from washing his hands raw. Now, at 36, OCD symptoms continue to cost him jobs and relationships. He’s managed to turn his organizational skills into a profession — he’s a home organizer and house cleaner — but still he struggles daily with his obsessions.

“It’s caused me a great deal of suffering,” Rivas says. “I’ve tried many, many medications. I’ve wasted so much of my life.”

In 2012, running out of answers, Rivas took part in the first clinical trial to test ketamine as a treatment for OCD. While ketamine is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as an anesthetic, it is also an illicit party drug known as “Special K,” with hallucinogenic effects and the potential for abuse. Over the past 10 years, dozens of small studies of ketamine’s ability to treat a variety of mood and anxiety disorders have reported remarkable results — including the sudden alleviation of treatment-resistant depression, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. And these effects lasted days, sometimes weeks, after the hallucinogenic effects of the drug wore off.

With a single infusion of the drug, Rivas experienced for two weeks what it was like to live without the compulsions and obsessions that had for years controlled his life.

“I felt like, for the first time, I was able to function like a regular person,” he says.

Illustration of a giant K being painted by a man in a white coat
Kotryna Zukauskaite

Pros and cons

Ketamine has brought hope to a psychiatric field desperate to find new treatments for severe OCD, a chronic condition marked by debilitating obsessions and repetitive behaviors. Current treatments, which include antidepressants such as Prozac, can take months to have any effect on the disease, if they work at all.

“Severe OCD takes such a toll on patients,” says Carolyn Rodriguez, MD, PhD, who as a researcher at Columbia University ran the OCD trial. Now an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford, she has continued to explore the pros and cons of using ketamine to treat OCD. “The constant, intrusive thoughts that something is contaminated, the checking and rechecking, the repetitive behaviors. It interferes with your life, your jobs, your relationships.”

Ketamine was developed in the 1960s and has been used for decades as an anesthetic during surgery. It remains a mystery just how the drug works in the brain, and there are safety concerns. There is evidence from people who take the drug routinely — in much higher doses — that chronic, high-frequency ketamine use may be associated with increased risk of bladder inflammation and cognitive impairment, Rodriguez says. And if taken regularly, it can lead to dependence.

But researchers like Rodriguez are intrigued about the drug’s potential to help them identify a whole new line of medicines for fast-acting treatment of mental health disorders.

“What most excites me about ketamine is that it works in a different way than traditional antidepressants,” Rodriguez says. “Using ketamine, we hope to understand the neurobiology that could lead to safe, fast-acting treatments. I feel that is part of my mission as a physician and researcher.”

‘Right out of a movie’

Rodriguez’s interest in ketamine as a treatment for OCD was sparked about a decade ago when she was starting out as a research scientist at Columbia. A small, placebo-controlled study published in 2006 by a mentor of hers, Carlos Zarate, MD, now chief of the section on neurobiology and treatment of mood disorders at the National Institute of Mental Health, had shown that ketamine induced dramatic improvement in treatment-resistant depression within two hours of infusion. It was a landmark study, drawing attention among the psychiatric community and launching a new field of research into the use of ketamine to treat various mood and anxiety disorders.”What most excites me about ketamine is that it works in a different way than traditional antidepressants.”

Rodriguez, intent on searching for better, faster treatments for her patients like Rivas with OCD, took note. There was an emerging theory that ketamine affects the levels of the neurotransmitter glutamate in the brain and increasing evidence that glutamate plays a role in OCD symptoms, she says. Perhaps ketamine could help regulate OCD symptoms as well as depression.

In 2013, Rodriguez and colleagues published their results from that first clinical trial of ketamine in OCD patients. The trial randomized 15 patients with OCD to ketamine or placebo.

In those patients who were given ketamine, the effect was immediate. Patients reported dramatic decreases in their obsessive-compulsive symptoms midway through the 40-minute infusion, according to the study. The diminished symptoms lasted throughout the following week in half of the patients. Most striking were comments by the patients quoted in the study: “I tried to have OCD thoughts, but I couldn’t,” said one. Another said, “I feel as if the weight of OCD has been lifted.” A third said, “I don’t have any intrusive thoughts. … This is amazing, unbelievable. This is right out of a movie.” And while nearly all initially had dissociative effects like feelings of unreality, distortions of time or hallucinations, they were gone within two hours after the start of the infusion.

“Carolyn’s study was quite exciting,” Zarate says, adding that there were a number of similar, small but rigorous studies following his 2006 study that found fast-acting results using ketamine to treat bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“We had no reason to believe that ketamine could wipe out any symptoms of these disorders within hours or days,” he says.

So how does it work?

Virtually all of the antidepressants used in the past 60 years work the same way: by raising levels of serotonin or one or two other neurotransmitters. Ketamine, however, doesn’t affect serotonin levels. Exactly what it does remains unclear.”There’s a recognition that people like me and others are using the drug to treat patients now. There’s an incredible need for something.”

Since coming to Stanford in 2015, Rodriguez has been funded by the National Institute of Mental Health for a large clinical trial of ketamine’s effects on OCD. This five-year trial aims to follow 90 OCD patients for as long as six months after they’ve been given a dose of ketamine or an alternative drug. Rodriguez and her research team want to observe how ketamine changes participants’ brains, as well as test for side effects.

Ultimately, Rodriguez says, she hopes the study will lead to the discovery of other fast-acting drugs that work in the brain like ketamine but without its addictive potential.

Recent research in the field indicates that the glutamate hypothesis that triggered her pilot study might be further refined.

“Ketamine is a complicated drug that works on many different receptor sites,” she says. “Researchers have fixated on the NMDA receptor, one of the glutamate-type receptors, but it might not be the only receptor bringing benefit.”

In May 2016, researchers from NIMH and the University of Maryland — Zarate among them — published a study conducted in mice showing that a chemical byproduct, or metabolite, created as the body breaks down ketamine might hold the secret to its rapid antidepressant actions. This metabolite, hydroxynorketamine, reversed depressionlike symptoms in mice without triggering any of the anesthetic, dissociative or addictive side effects associated with ketamine, Zarate says.

“Ideally, we’d like to test hydroxynorketamine and possibly other drugs that act on glutamate pathways without ketamine-like side effects as possible alternatives to ketamine in OCD,” Rodriguez says.

Beyond the clubs

Meanwhile, dozens of commercial ketamine clinics have popped up across the country, making treatments available to patients who are searching for help to stop their suffering now. Medical insurance companies usually cover ketamine’s FDA-approved use as an anesthetic but won’t cover its use for other purposes, such as mental health disorders. So patients who have run out of treatment options are paying hundreds of dollars a dose for repeated ketamine infusions.

“The fact that these clinics exist is due to the desperation of patients,” says Rodriguez.

She and other researchers are calling for guidelines to protect patients and more research to learn how to use the drug safely.

“I think it’s a game changer, and it’s here to stay,” says David Feifel, MD, PhD, professor emeritus of psychiatry at UC-San Diego, who studies the effect of ketamine on clinical depression. Feifel began prescribing the drug for patients with treatment-resistant depression in 2010.

“I’ve found it to be very safe,” Feifel says, adding that the American Psychiatric Association this year issued safety guidelines on how to use ketamine clinically for treatment of depression.

“There’s a recognition that people like me and others are using the drug to treat patients now,” he says. “There’s an incredible need for something.”

The drug hasn’t worked for everyone he’s treated, Feifel says, but for many it’s been “life-changing.”

Rodriguez says she understands what motivates the clinicians to prescribe the drug now to patients in dire straits — those who are suicidal or who have tried every possible medication and therapeutic option and continue to suffer each day.

“I see it as a way to treat people whose OCD is very, very severe,” she says. “People who can’t come out of the house, who are suicidal, who have no other options.

“I just don’t like the idea of people being in pain,” Rodriguez adds. “I want to see science translated into treatments now.”

Meanwhile, researchers are learning more about the drug. Janssen Pharmaceutical is testing the efficacy of a version of ketamine, known as esketamine, as a therapy for treatment-resistant depression and for major depressive disorder with imminent risk for suicide. The FDA has fast-tracked both investigations. At Stanford, Alan Schatzberg, MD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, along with other faculty including Rodriguez, is studying the mechanism of action for ketamine in treating depression.

Rodriguez is also interested in using ketamine to kick-start a type of cognitive behavioral therapy called exposure and response prevention, an evidence-based psychological treatment designed to help patients overcome OCD. The therapy involves teaching patients with OCD to face anxieties by refraining from ritualizing behaviors, then progressing to more challenging anxieties as they experience success.

Relaxation and other techniques also help patients tolerate their anxiety — for example, postponing the compulsion to wash their hands for at least 30 minutes, then extending that time period.

“My goal isn’t to have people taking ketamine for long periods of time,” Rodriguez says. But perhaps a short-term course of ketamine could provide its own kind of exposure and response prevention by allowing patients to experience that it is possible not to be controlled by their OCD, she says.

Rivas well remembers that infusion of ketamine he received during Rodriguez’s first clinical trial to test the drug. The rush made him feel “like Superman.”

“I felt like my body was bigger, that I was more muscular, that I could tackle anything,” he says. But that feeling only lasted the duration of the 40-minute infusion. His OCD symptoms disappeared immediately and were still gone for two weeks after.

“I was amazed that something like that would work and work so fast,” he says. His OCD symptoms today are still intrusive, but he manages to keep them under control by taking antidepressants and seeing a therapist. Still, each day when he comes home from work, he has to put gloves on before he enters his apartment building, and as soon as he enters his apartment, he must wash his hands.

“It’s a ritual now,” he says. “There has never been a time that I haven’t done that, except those two weeks after the ketamine.”

When he heard that certain private ketamine clinics are now offering the drug as treatment for OCD, he said he understands why patients take the risks and pay the high prices. As more research has become available, he’s begun considering it himself.

“I’ve been suffering through my OCD for so long, I’ve gotten to the point where I’d try anything,” he says.

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A randomized trial of a low-trapping nonselective N-methyl-D-aspartate channel blocker in major depression.A randomized trial of a low-trapping nonselective N-methyl-D-aspartate channel blocker in major depression.

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Increased anterior cingulate cortical activity in response to fearful faces a neurophysiological biomarker that predicts rapid antidepressant response to ketamine

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