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Long known as a party drug, ketamine now used for depression, but concerns remain

A decades-old anesthetic made notorious as a party drug in the 1980s is resurfacing as a potential “game-changing” treatment for severe depression, patients and psychiatrists say, but they remain wary about potential long-term problems.

The Food and Drug Administration earlier this month OKd use of Spravato for patients with depression who have not benefited from other currently available medications. Spravato, the brand name given to the drug esketamine, is a molecule derived from ketamine — known as Special K on the club scene.

Ketamine has been shown in some studies to be useful for treating a wide variety of neurological disorders including depression. Regular, longtime use of it isn’t well understood, psychiatrists say, but the need for a new drug to treat depression is so great that the FDA put Spravato on a fast-track course for approval.

The drug likely will be commercially available in a few weeks, and patients already are requesting it. Restrictions around its use, though — the drug must be administered in a doctor’s office by providers who are certified with the company making it — mean it may be months before it’s widely available, and longer than that before insurers start paying for it.

“I don’t think we know at this point how effective it’s going to be,” said Dr. Craig Nelson, a psychiatrist at the UCSF Depression Center. “There have been a number of studies of ketamine, sometimes showing effects in people who were resistant to other drugs. If we can treat a different group of people, it would be a great advantage.”

Ketamine was developed in the 1960s as a surgical anesthetic for people and animals. The drug can cause hallucinations and a feeling of “dissociation” or unreality, and in the 1980s it took off as a party drug among people seeking those effects. It remained a common anesthetic, though, and in the early 2000s doctors began to notice a connection between ketamine and relief from symptoms of depression and other mood disorders.

Spravato is delivered by nasal spray, which patients give themselves in a doctor’s office. Patients must be monitored while they get the drug and for two hours after to make sure they don’t suffer immediate complications. At the start, patients will get the nasal spray twice a week for four weeks, then taper to regular boosters every few weeks for an indefinite period of time.

Studies of ketamine — and specifically of Spravato — have produced encouraging but inconsistent results. Psychiatrists say that, like most other antidepressants, the drug probably won’t help everyone with difficult-to-treat depression. But there likely will be a subset of patients who get substantial benefits, and that alone may make it an incredible new tool.

About 16 million Americans experience depression every year, and roughly a quarter of them get no benefit from antidepressants on the market. Thought scientists haven’t determined exactly how ketamine works on the brains of people with depression or other mood disorders, it appears to take a different path of attack than any drug already available. That means that people who don’t respond to other antidepressants may find this one works for them.

But a concern among some psychiatrists is that studies have suggested that ketamine may affect the same receptors in the brain that respond to opioids. Ketamine and its derivations may then put patients at risk of addiction — but research so far hasn’t explored that kind of long-term effect.

“There might be some potential problems if you used it too aggressively,” said Dr. Alan Schatzberg, director of the Stanford Mood Disorders Center, who led the research that identified a connection with opioid receptors. “The issue is not so much the short-term use, it’s the repetitive use, and the use over time, as to whether there are going to be untoward consequences.

“It would be hard for me to recommend the use of this drug for chronically depressed people without knowing what the endgame is here,” he added.

Dr. Carolyn Rodriguez, a Stanford psychiatrist who was part of the studies of ketamine and opioid receptors, said she shares Schatzberg’s concerns. But she’s been studying the use of ketamine to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder, and for some patients the results have been so remarkable that the benefits may exceed the risks.

“When I gave ketamine to my first patient, I nearly fell off my chair. Somebody said it was like a vacation from their OCD, and I was just, ‘Wow, this is really possible,’” Rodriguez said. “I want to make sure patients have their eyes wide open. I hope (the FDA approval) spurs more research, so we can really inform consumers.”

Though the new nasal spray is the first formal FDA approval of a ketamine-derived drug, psychiatrists have been using the generic anesthetic for years to study its effect on depression and other mood disorders.

In recent years, clinics have opened around the country offering intravenous infusions of ketamine to people with hard-to-treat depression and other problems. These treatments aren’t specifically FDA-approved but are allowed as off-label use of ketamine. The clinics have faced skepticism from some traditional psychiatrists, but there’s a growing ream of anecdotal evidence that the ketamine IVs work — for some people.

Aptos resident Mary, who suffers from depression and other mood disorders and asked that her last name not be used to protect her privacy, said the already available antidepressants weren’t keeping her symptoms at bay, and she frequently felt “one step away from the abyss.” When she first heard about ketamine, from a support group for people with depression and other mood disorders, she was hesitant.

“I kind of hemmed and hawed, because I’d heard that K was a street drug,” Mary said. “But then I said, ‘What do I have to lose?’ So I went and did it.”

The results were quick: Within four days, “the cloud had lifted,” she said. More than a year later, she is still feeling good with regular infusions every three or four weeks. During the ketamine infusion, Mary said she’ll feel the dissociation, which she described as feeling like she’s viewing the world around her as though it were a movie and not her own life.

She said she’s pleased the FDA approved Spravato, though she hasn’t decided whether she’ll switch from the IV ketamine to the nasal spray. She hopes that the FDA approval will give some validation to ketamine and encourage others to try it.

Mary gets her infusions at Palo Alto Mind Body, where Dr. M Rameen Ghorieshi started offering ketamine two years ago. He’s certified with the maker of Spravato — Janssen Pharmaceuticals, a branch of Johnson and Johnson — to provide the drug, though he doesn’t know when he’ll actually start giving the nasal spray to patients.

Ghorieshi said that although he’s been offering IV ketamine for more than two years, he shares his colleagues’ wariness of the long-term effects of regular use of the drug. He hopes FDA approval will encourage further research.

“At this point we’ve done 1,000 infusions. The outcomes have exceeded my own expectations,” Ghorieshi said. “But anecdotes are not clinical trials. I approach this very cautiously. What I don’t want is 20 or 30 years from now to look back and say, ‘What did we do?’”



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Call NOVA Health Recovery at 703-844-0184 for a free consultation for a Ketamine infusion. No referral needed. We offer intranasal Ketamine follow up therapy as well. Alexandria, Va 22306.

Call NOVA Health Recovery at 703-844-0184 for a free consultation for a Ketamine infusion. No referral needed. We offer intranasal Ketamine follow up therapy as well. Alexandria, Va 22306.

From Popular Anesthetic to Antidepressant, Ketamine Isn’t the Drug You Think It Is

An hour before we spoke, Darragh O’Carroll, an emergency room physician from Hawaii, had just given an elderly patient a sedating shot of ketamine. The man had pneumonia and was acting confused and fidgety, making him hard to treat.

“Not only it was a pain control for him when I was putting needles into his neck, but it also kept him still,” O’Carroll says. “And with very minimal risk of lowering his blood pressure.”

Ketamine’s use as an anesthetic — and not as a party drug — is widespread, though not commonly known. In fact, the World Health Organizationestimates ketamine is the most widely used anesthetic in the world and keeps it on their list of essential medicines, a category of drugs that all developed countries should have on hand.

O’Carroll has described ketamine as his “favorite medicine of all time” in an article for Tonic, not only because the anesthetic is incredibly safe and effective, but also because of its versatility. It’s most widely used in surgery, but could also help treat severe asthma, chronic pain, and may even possess anti-tumor properties. In the last two decades, ketamine has also emerged as a potent antidepressant, able to treat symptoms of some mental illnesses in less than 72 hours.

“I think the more research that goes into ketamine, the more uses that we find for it,” O’Carroll says.

From PCP to Painkiller

Ketamine’s story begins with a drug called PCP. Yes, that PCP — phencyclidine or so-called “angel dust,” a drug that when smoked can cause a trance-like state, agitation and out-of-body hallucinations. After it was first synthesized by medicinal chemist Victor Maddox in 1956, the drug was briefly approved as an anesthetic by the FDA for its sedative properties. In tests with a wild rhesus monkey, for example, researchers put their fingers in the previously aggressive animal’s mouth and watched its jaw remain slack.

But while it was safe and effective for pain relief, the side effects of PCP soon became too obvious to ignore.

Some patients under the influence of PCP would feel like they lost their arms or legs or that they were floating in space. It could also cause seizures and delirium. Scientists began seeking a shorter-acting anesthetic without convulsant properties. In 1962, chemistry professor Calvin Stevens discovered a PCP analogue that fit the bill: ketamine.

Ketamine is a potent, sedating painkiller that can cause amnesia and is mostly used in surgery and veterinary medicine. During the Vietnam Invasion, ketamine saw widespread use in the U.S. military because it has several advantages over opioids. First, unlike morphine, ketamine doesn’t suppress blood pressure or breathing. It also doesn’t need to be refrigerated, making it useful in the field or in rural areas that don’t have access to electricity.

Ketamine’s benefits extend beyond use as an anesthetic, though — in some cases it can serve as a balm for the mind as well. A 2008 analysis found that burn victims who were given ketamine were less likely to develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, even if their injuries were more severe. Those findings have been replicated, such as a 2014 clinical trial of 41 patients, who saw their PTSD symptoms diminish within 24 hours, an effect that lasted for two weeks.

“When somebody gets one of their limbs dramatically blown off or is shot in the face, it’s a very traumatic event,” O’Carroll says. In such a situation, giving ketamine not only provides instant pain relief, it could prevent long-lasting trauma.

Because its chemical structure is so similar to PCP, ketamine can still give lucid hallucinations, such as feeling that your mind has separated from the body — a dissociative state users sometimes call a “K-hole.” One recent study based on users’ written reports even indicated that this kind of experience might be a close analogue to a near-death experience. However, these dissociative states only happen at high doses — the amount of ketamine used to for surgery and to treat depression is typically much lower.

But ketamine’s side effects are less common and easier to manage than PCP. In fact, ketamine is one of the safest drugs used in medicine today and can even be given to young children. For example, ketamine was used to sedatethe boys’ soccer team trapped in a cave in Thailand last year. Putting the kids in a tranquilized state made it easier to rescue them, and ketamine is safer than the opioids or benzodiazepines that are also commonly used as sedatives.  

Ketamine as Antidepressant

But it wasn’t until the 1990s that what could turn out to be ketamine’s most important function was discovered. A team from Yale University School of Medicine was examining the role of glutamate, a common neurotransmitter, in depression, and discovered something remarkable: ketamine could rapidly relieve depression symptoms.

“To our surprise, the patients started saying, they were better in a few hours,” Dennis Charney, one of the researchers, told Bloomberg. This rapid relief was unheard of in psychiatry.

Glutamate is associated with neural plasticity, our brain’s ability to adapt and change at the level of the neuron. Ketamine blocks certain glutamate receptors, but not others, and the end effect could be to promote the growth of new neurons while protecting old ones. This could explain how ketamine can help reset the brain, though the theory hasn’t yet been definitively proven.

The prescription meds currently on the market for depression have some major drawbacks. Drugs like Prozac or Wellbutrin can take a few weeks or months to kick in while worsening symptoms in the short term — not a good combination, especially for someone who is extremely depressed, or even suicidal.

It took around a decade for mainstream science to take notice of these early ketamine-depression studies. But once it did, ketamine clinics began popping up all across North America, offering fast relief for depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses. Patients are given an infusion — an IV drip that lasts about an hour — and many people, but not everyone, have seen rapid relief of their symptoms.

Suddenly, ketamine infusions became trendy, though the science to back up some of the medical claims is still inconclusive, according to STAT. However, ketamine infusions are rarely covered by insurance, although that is changing. A typical session can run $700, with many patients taking six sessions or more. But many of these patients have so-called treatment-resistant depression. They’ve tried other medications or therapies without success and some see ketamine as a last resort.

Steven Mandel, a clinical psychologist and anesthesiologist, has used ketamine on patients since it first came on the market around 50 years ago. In 2014, he began using it for patients with depression and opened Ketamine Clinics of Los Angeles, one of the oldest and largest clinics in the country. They’ve done over 8,000 infusions so far.

“Our success rate is better than 83 percent,” Mandel says. For his clinic, success means a 50 percent improvement of depression symptoms for longer than three months.

Ketamine’s success as an antidepressant couldn’t help but attract the attention of major pharmaceutical companies as well. In 2009, Johnson & Johnson began developing their own version of the drug they called esketamine. Rather than an infusion through a vein, it’s dispensed through a nasal spray. The FDA approved their formulation in early March. It was thefirst drug in 35 years to fight depression using a different approach than traditional drugs.

“Esketamine is a giant step forward,” Mandel says. “It means we’re not going to be demonizing mind-altering substances used for therapeutic purposes. It opens the door to research on LSD, on psilocybin, on MDMA and many other agents that could possibly relieve a great deal of suffering.”

But many clinicians have raised concerns about long-term side effects, such as heart and bladder toxicity. Others have been critical of esketamine, saying there isn’t enough data yet to suggest the drug is safe or effective. Husseini Manji, a neuroscientist who helped develop the drug for Johnson & Johnson at their subsidiary Janssen, has pushed back against these claims.

“When you line up the totality of the studies, it was really an overwhelming amount of data that was all in the same direction,” Manji says in a call. Though just two of the five late-state clinical trials showed significant results, the changes in mood in the three that fell short were “almost identical in magnitude” to the others, Manji says. It was enough for the drug to meet standards for FDA approval.

We can probably expect other ketamine-related drugs to come to market soon. ATAI Life Sciences, a company funding research on the use of magic mushrooms for depression, is developing their own ketamine depression drug. The pharmaceutical company Allergan also developed rapastinel, another ketamine-like drug, though it failed to show any real benefits for patients in later trials. Manji says this is unfortunate for people who could be helped by these kinds of drugs.

“From a patient standpoint, we were hoping it would work,” he says, even though he was not involved in rapastinel’s development. “But sometimes if you really haven’t got the mechanism right and you haven’t really threaded the needle, then sometimes you don’t see these results.”

Drug of Abuse?

Even though ketamine’s medical uses are well-established, most people have only heard of ketamine in the context of a party drug. Because of this bad reputation — and what’s perceived as growing misuse of the drug — several countries, such as China and the UK, have tried to place greater restrictions on ketamine. This would make it harder to study and more expensive in clinical use.

“If it was to ever be rescheduled, places that would be first affected would be you know places that need it most,” O’Carroll says. The WHO has asked at least four times for countries to keep access to ketamine open. “The medical benefits of ketamine far outweigh potential harm from recreational use,” Marie-Paule Kieny, assistant director general for Health Systems and Innovation at WHO, said in 2015.

So far, no countries have put greater restrictions on ketamine, and that’s probably a good thing. Ketamine has a rich history, but its future is still being written.



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Ketamine Is Showing Early Success With Treating OCD

Tonic Video

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.

Extra

volumehigh audio interview

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.

A Randomized Trial of a Low-Trapping Nonselective N-Methyl-D-Aspartate Channel Blocker in Major Depression. Zarate CA Jr, Mathews D, Ibrahim L, Chaves JF, Marquardt C, Ukoh I, Jolkovsky L, Brutsche NE, Smith MA, Luckenbaugh DA. Biol Psychiatry. 2012 Nov 30. pii: S0006-3223(12)00941-9. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2012.10.019. PMID: 23206319.

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.

Rapid Resolution of Suicidal Ideation after a Single Infusion of an NMDA Antagonist in Patients with Treatment-Resistant Major Depressive Disorder. Nancy DiazGranados, MD, MS, Lobna Ibrahim, MD, Nancy Brutsche, MSN, Rezvan Ameli, PhD, Ioline D Henter, MA, David A Luckenbaugh, MA, Rodrigo Machado-Vieira, MD, PhD, and Carlos A Zarate, Jr, MD. J Clin Psychiatry. 2010 December; 71(12): 1605–1611. PMID: 20673547.

Rapid Resolution of Suicidal Ideation after a Single Infusion of an NMDA Antagonist in Patients with Treatment-Resistant Major Depressive Disorde

A randomized add-on trial of an N-methyl-D-aspartate antagonist in treatment-resistant bipolar depression. Diazgranados N, Ibrahim L, Brutsche NE, Newberg A, Kronstein P, Khalife S, Kammerer WA, Quezado Z, Luckenbaugh DA, Salvadore G, Machado-Vieira R, Manji HK, Zarate CA Jr. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2010 Aug;67(8):793-802. doi: 10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2010.90. PMID: 20679587.

Increased anterior cingulate cortical activity in response to fearful faces: a neurophysiological biomarker that predicts rapid antidepressant response to ketamine. Salvadore G, Cornwell BR, Colon-Rosario V, Coppola R, Grillon C, Zarate CA Jr, Manji HK. Biol Psychiatry. 2009 Feb 15;65(4):289-95. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2008.08.014. Epub 2008 Sep 25. PMID: 18822408.

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

A randomized trial of an N-methyl-D-aspartate antagonist in treatment-resistant major depression. Zarate CA Jr, Singh JB, Carlson PJ, Brutsche NE, Ameli R, Luckenbaugh DA, Charney DS, Manji HK. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2006 Aug;63(8):856-64. PMID: 16894061.

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K for OCD

The pros and cons of ketamine

By Tracie White
Illustration by Kotryna Zukauskaite

Geuris “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.

Extra

volumehigh audio interview  < interview Link

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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The pros and cons of ketamine

Geuris “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.

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

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.

USING KETAMINE TO TREAT SEVERE MENTAL ILLNESSA conversation with Stanford psychiatrist Carolyn Rodriguez, MD, PhD, about how she got interested in the use of ketamine to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder and how she is determined to find out why, in studies, the drug has provided relief from symptoms.

AUDIO Interview

Addiction Domain LINK