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‘Nothing less than transformational:’ Ketamine brings relief to people with severe depression

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Ketamine gave Rachel Morgan her life back.

The 33 year old has struggled to beat back severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder for much of her life. She’s tried more than 30 psychiatric medications, none of which helped. Her inner pain reached a level so unbearable that she retreated from the world. She stayed in bed. She stopped doing the dishes and taking out the trash, which piled up in her San Francisco apartment. She stopped socializing.

She lost the will to live.

“I had gotten to a point where I disappeared, mentally and physically,” Morgan said. “My psychiatrist kind of put his hands up in the air and said, ‘There’s nothing else I can do for you.'”

But he did suggest something different she could try, albeit not through him: ketamine. The only legally available psychedelic in the U.S., the drug is widely used as an anesthetic in hospitals and medical settings. But it has been found to give people with severe mood disorders, including treatment-resistant depression and suicidal ideation, almost unbelievably fast-acting relief from their symptoms — some with a single dose, though more commonly it takes several treatments.

Morgan received her first ketamine infusion in a Palo Alto psychiatry clinic in June. By her second treatment, she took out the trash for the first time in months. After several infusions, friends told her she was talking more than she had in a year.

For the first time in her life, “I felt like there is a future for me,” Morgan said. “It’s left me a different person than I was a year ago.”

Ketamine is starting to shed its reputation as a psychedelic club drug and experimental mental health treatment as more patients like Morgan see results and more research is conducted on the drug’s impact on the brain. A watershed moment came in March when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Spravato, or esketamine, a ketamine nasal spray for adults with treatment-resistant major depression. One short-term clinical trial showed the spray had a statistically significant effect on depression compared to a placebo, and patients saw some effect within two days, according to the FDA.

A handful of local private psychiatry clinics, including in Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Woodside, have in recent years started offering ketamine. They are working at the forefront of a promising new treatment in psychiatry, a field that has seen little medication innovation for decades.

Many of the psychiatrists who run these clinics said they were initially skeptical of the drug’s potential, with little still known about how exactly ketamine works as an antidepressant and its long-term effects, but became believers when they saw life-changing improvements in patients for whom nothing else had worked.

“I think we’re on the brink of an amazing revolution in psychiatry,” said Alex Dimitriu, who offers ketamine treatments at his Menlo Park private psychiatry clinic. “We’re on the brink of understanding that a lot of drugs that previously we thought were drugs of abuse are actually turning out to be some very powerful agents.”

Exploring ketamine’s potential

Ketamine was developed in 1962 as a fast-acting anesthetic and continues to be widely used as such today, particularly for surgery and pain relief, including with children and in veterinary medicine. The drug is a schedule III controlled substance, meaning its medical use is accepted and it has moderate to low potential for abuse. The World Health Organization has included ketamine on its list of essential medicines since 1985 and calls it “possibly the most widely used anesthetic in the world.” As an anesthetic, it is incredibly safe (it does not depress breathing or blood pressure) and is easy to administer, according to the World Health Organization.

In higher doses, ketamine produces a “dissociative” state that can include hallucinations and out-of-body experiences. The drug’s conscious-altering potential led to its recreational use in the psychedelic era of the 1960s and 1970s.

Reports of ketamine use to treat psychological or psychiatric disorders first emerged in the 1970s, including in Argentina, Mexico and Russia, according to a study co-authored by Jennifer Dore, who offers ketamine at her private Helios Psychiatry practice in Woodside.

In 2000, a group of Yale University researchers published a seminal but small-scale study that found seven patients with major depression who received ketamine showed significant improvement in their symptoms within 72 hours, suggesting the drug could be used as an antidepressant.

Six years later, a National Institute of Mental Health study showed that ketamine reduced depression symptoms more quickly than a placebo.

Dore, who trained as a resident at the Stanford University Department of Psychiatry, became curious about ketamine several years ago while treating patients with severe PTSD and treatment-resistant depression. They simply weren’t getting better.

Dore dug into the available research on the drug’s antidepressant effects, which suggested that ketamine inhibits the action of the brain’s NMDA receptors and triggers glutamate production, which causes the brain to form new neural connections. She reached out to Phil Wolfson, director of the Center for Transformational Psychotherapy in San Anselmo, who pioneered ketamine-assisted psychotherapy, in which ketamine is administered while simultaneously patients receive therapy. She was compelled by taking this approach rather than the more medical model of providing the drug in isolation.

The results with her early patients in 2016 were like nothing she had ever seen.

“They had immediate relief,” she said.

Dore said her clinic was the first on the Peninsula to offer ketamine-assisted psychotherapy. She now offers trainings for other providers and sits on the board of the Ketamine Research Foundation.

In March, Dore published a five-year study with two other psychiatry practices that found patients who received ketamine saw clinically significant improvements in depression and anxiety, particularly so for people who came in with more severe symptoms like suicidality and a history of psychiatric hospitalization. At their clinics, they saw the drug help people suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, personality disorders, substance abuse, psychological reactions to physical illness and even relationship issues and social anxiety.

“Ketamine promotes a time-out from (the) ordinary, usual mind, relief from negativity, and an openness to the expansiveness of mind with access to self in the larger sense,” Dore’s study states. “These effects enhance a patient’s ability to engage in meaningful psychotherapy during and after administration.”

Dore is a staunch champion of combining ketamine with psychotherapy, which she believes is necessary to harness the full potential of the drug. She doesn’t see ketamine as a magic bullet, but rather one tool she can use in concert with others — talk therapy, medication, nutrition — to treat people in serious psychological pain.

Before patients start ketamine, Dore carefully evaluates them to determine if it’s an appropriate next step in their treatment, as recommended by the American Psychiatric Association, including through therapy sessions, psychological tests and a review of their medical history. If they choose to proceed, Dore requires patients to sign a lengthy consent form that explains how ketamine works and its potential benefits and risks.

During a patient’s initial treatment, Dore monitors their physical and emotional responses, including blood pressure and heart rate, to decide on an appropriate dose going forward. The highest doses can produce the dissociative state, or the dream-like sensation of disconnecting from reality, Dore said. (Some people believe they have died and are in a new reality, she said. One patient described it as being in a lucid dream.) At lower doses, it can feel more like having a glass of wine, she said. The peak effects last about 15 to 30 minutes, according to Dore.

Patients can take the ketamine via a small lozenge that dissolves under their tongues, intravenously or an intra-muscular injection.

They receive the ketamine in a large second-floor space at Dore’s practice. It resembles a homey living room more than a psychiatric setting — a reflection of the importance of creating “set and setting” for a psychedelic experience, including a comforting physical environment. A large, soft corner couch is strewn with pillows, including one that says “anger” and another, “love.” During treatments, Dore pulls down the blinds on the windows, adjusts the temperature and offers patients weighted blankets, eyeshades and quiet music. The sessions last two to three hours.

Gaining a new perspective

Andy Mathis was at the end of his mental rope when he found Dore. A father, husband and successful tech industry executive, he had quietly suffered from self-doubt and insomnia since he was a young child. By the time he reached his mid-40s, it had escalated to depression. He felt his well-being and very brain chemistry was at risk.

A friend of a friend referred him to Dore, who prescribed him antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications that finally helped him sleep. But she suspected there was more to understand about the root causes of his symptoms, he said, and suggested ketamine as a means for exploring that.

A former professional tennis player, Mathis said he had never taken any drugs before. He did his own research on ketamine and thought it sounded “groundbreaking.” He was more curious than fearful about embarking on a psychedelic experience.

He received his first infusion two and a half years ago and continues to get ketamine every four to eight weeks today.

“It was indeed transformational,” Mathis said. “Nothing less than transformational.”

Mathis described the experience as taking him out of his own ego, a “tilt(ing) of the prism on how I see things.”

“It allowed me to have a detached, philosophical view on all things — me, my place in the world, my relationships,” he said.

This helps him make sense of his emotions “in a way that can be extremely difficult and sometimes even impossible to do when I am inside of myself,” referring to his default, day-to-day mental state.

Over the course of the infusions, Mathis started feeling more comfortable in his own skin, which he said improved his relationships and even his work performance. He realized he has a love for music and at age 47, started to learn how to play the saxophone. He came to a better understanding of his relationship to food and how he had used it as a coping mechanism.

Combining the ketamine-induced realizations with therapy was crucial, Mathis said.

“It was the post-experience discussions that we would have that would also unravel and unwind some of the unhealthy habits,” he said. “I’m 47 now, almost 48. I am healthier now than I was probably, maybe, ever.”

Dore likened ketamine’s power as a catalyst for psychological change to “a year of psychotherapy in three hours.”

Unlike antidepressants, patients don’t have to take ketamine every day and do not experience significant side effects; they can become nauseous or slur their words during the treatment, psychiatrists said. They require patients to have someone to drive them home after the treatment.

Mathis, for his part, did not experience any negative side effects. A patient at another local psychiatry clinic, Lisa Ward, however, said her mind feels “foggy” if she has two infusions in a single week. According to the FDA, the most common side effects experienced by patients treated with Spravato, the esketamine nasal spray, in clinical trials including disassociation, dizziness, nausea, lethargy and increased blood pressure.

“It would be inhumane,” Dore said, to not offer ketamine to people in intractable mental anguish. “We need things that are transformative, that aren’t putting a Band-Aid on a problem.”

Psychiatrist calls it ‘life-changing’

When Rameen Ghorieshi first looked into ketamine as an option for a patient with treatment-resistant depression about five years ago, it was still “very much fringe,” he said. His colleagues at Stanford, where he completed his psychiatric training, knew about the drug but had no idea how to actually use it as a treatment.

He decided to offer ketamine at his small private practice in downtown Palo Alto, Palo Alto Mind Body. He trained with an anesthesiologist and started with two patients. One suicidal young woman who had dealt with a chronic illness since childhood and didn’t intend to live past 30 years old, he said, got to the point where she was working four days a week, socializing and planning to go back to school.

“That just blew my mind,” Ghorieshi said. “I knew it would help just reading the studies but seeing it firsthand was pretty incredible.”

He has done more than 1,000 ketamine infusions at his downtown Palo Alto practice. Eighty-seven percent of patients rated their improvements as significant and 35% of those described it as “life-changing.” It particularly helped suicidal patients, he said. About 13% of patients said the improvement in their symptoms was not worth the time and effort of the infusions.

“This is a bit of a departure for me. I’m a very conservative prescriber,” Ghorieshi said. “My patients tend to be on one, two, maybe three medications. … But it was so remarkable that it seemed hard not to offer it to people.”

Ghorieshi said his was the first clinic in the Bay Area to treat someone with the tightly controlled, FDA-approved nasal spray. A handful of his patients have since received it, with good results, he said.

Esketamine is attached to a federal Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy, which the FDA “can require for certain medications with serious safety concerns to help ensure the benefits of the medication outweigh its risks.” Providers and patients must register and the drug must be administered in a certified medical office under the supervision of a health care professional.

At Palo Alto Mind Body, patients receive eight ketamine infusions over several weeks. They are strongly encouraged to also pursue therapy but it’s not part of the treatment itself, Ghorieshi said.

He or a nurse supervises patients over the course of the 90-minute appointments. Morgan likes to sit upright on the couch in Ghorieshi’s office, covered by a blanket that keeps her warm and gives her a sense of emotional security. She listens to relaxing elevator music. After, she goes home and naps off the residual effects.

Years ago, she was given much higher doses of ketamine as a pain treatment for chronic physical illnesses and had horrible hallucinations, which she described as “having my head slammed against a wall repeatedly by a slime monster from a deep black bog.”

At the dose Ghorieshi gives her, she feels like the floor and ceiling switch. Her inhibitions dissolve. Afterwards, she feels more open to trying new experiences, from coping mechanisms for her depression to new foods. She feels her perfectionism, which for a long time had prevented her from being vulnerable with others, soften.

“To me, that’s the magic of ketamine,” Menlo Park psychiatrist Dimitriu said of the drug’s tendency to destabilize entrenched behaviors. “I think that speaks to the magic of future psychedelic research, which is down the pipeline, in that it increases our openness to new experience. The general belief here is if you’re depressed severely, you get stuck in maladaptive patterns.”

Lisa Ward didn’t see immediate relief from her life-long depression after her first ketamine infusion with Ghorieshi in March.

Then, a week later as the drug continued to work in her system, “the whole cloud just lifted,” she said. (It takes most patients several treatments to see results, according to Ghorieshi.)

She had more energy. She felt more productive. The benefits extended to her loved ones, as she’s engaged more with her two young children, husband, her parents and her sister.

“It’s enough for me to have more fun with my kids. It’s enough for me to spend more time with my husband instead of going to bed because I just can’t deal with the day anymore,” she said. “Being in depression you don’t realize it but it takes a big toll on other people.”

For Ward, a photographer, the effects of ketamine last about five weeks before she feels the cloud returning. There was one period where the ketamine seemed to stop working all together. Because she lives in Hollister — a three-hour round trip drive from Palo Alto, not including the time of the session itself — and pays out of pocket for the expensive treatment, gaps between her appointments stretch longer than she’d like.

She actually doesn’t enjoy the experience of being on ketamine, which she described as mind-bending and often intense. But she said the disruption of her depression allows her to focus on shifting the underpinning behavior and thought patterns.

Ketamine “doesn’t magically lift all … your problems away,” Ward said. “You’re more apt to make changes when you’re thinking clearly and you’re not so focused on the depression.”

While esketamine, the nasal spray, is covered by insurance because of the FDA approval, most other ketamine administrations are not. Morgan pays almost $1,000 out of pocket for each infusion, though Ghorieshi said some of his patients have been reimbursed for their treatments. Dore charges patients for her time as a provider, about $1,000 for a several-hour session, rather than for the drug itself.

Morgan felt strongly about using her full name in this article to dispel stigma around ketamine in the hopes it will be more widely accepted — and thus available to more people in need.

“Just because you hear something in one context, like ketamine being used as an illicit drug, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist in another,” she said. “I think that’s what scares insurance companies away from covering it for patients. And that’s what makes me angry because I wish this treatment was out there for everybody to see. I’m lucky enough to be able to handle the financial portion, but the average person might not be.”

The as-yet-unknown risks

Despite the success stories, ketamine has not yet been fully accepted by the broader psychiatric community. The unanswered questions and possible risks that surround ketamine — how it works as an antidepressant, the long-term effects, the potential for abuse — are cause for caution, said Alan Schatzberg, a Stanford School of Medicine psychiatry professor and former president of the American Psychiatric Association.

“Rarely has there been so much anticipation for a new antidepressant as has been seen for intranasal esketamine,” he wrote in the American Journal of Psychiatry in May about the newly FDA-approved ketamine nasal spray.

“Do we have clear evidence of efficacy? Maybe. How strong is the efficacy? Apparently mild. Do we have a real sense of how long and how often to prescribe it? It’s not entirely clear.

“Taken together,” he wrote, “there are more questions than answers with intranasal esketamine, and care should be exercised in its application in clinical practice.”

In an interview, Schatzberg said he’s concerned about repetitive, extended use of any form of ketamine and the drug’s potential for dependence. The American Psychiatric Association has said that the literature on ketamine’s longer-term effectiveness and safety is so limited that the organization cannot “make a meaningful statement” on such use.

“The scarcity of this information is one of the major drawbacks to be considered before initiating ketamine therapy for patients with mood disorders and should be discussed with the patient before beginning treatment,” an American Psychiatric Association task force wrote in a consensus statement on ketamine in 2017.

Schatzberg co-authored a 2018 study that suggests ketamine’s antidepressant effects are tied to the brain’s opioid system and said the implications of this for dependency should be studied further.

“This is the same as any potential drug of abuse, any kind of opioid type drug. Serial use is less the issue. It’s when you get into repetitive use that one needs to be careful,” Schatzberg said. “That’s the clarion call that we’ve been sounding.”

One of his study co-authors, Carolyn Rodriguez, a Stanford associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, has been blown away by the rapid benefits of ketamine in studies she’s conducted with patients with obsessive compulsive order, or OCD. In the first-ever randomized clinical trial of ketamine compared to placebo in OCD, she found that a single low dose of ketamine prompted a decrease in OCD symptoms within hours for all participants.

Yet she remains cautious and said more research is needed to fully understand the powerful drug. She’s currently studying the mechanisms of how ketamine works so quickly on OCD patients, with funding from the National Institute of Mental Health.

“I believe that the state of the field of ketamine and how it works on OCD is not at the point yet where I would recommend it clinically because I always like to see science, (including) my own science, replicated,” Rodriguez said.

With pause about the long-term effects, she and other researchers have suggested a national registry be created to monitor side effects.

Ghorieshi said he is frank with his patients about the unknowns and potential downsides of ketamine, which must be weighed against other risks.

“We do know the immediate mortality and morbidity of things like suicide and depression.

I think that’s, as with anything, the risk-benefit. What are the risks of suicide, but also depression and anxiety in general?” he said. “You have to balance that versus these unknown risks of ketamine.”

Mathis, for his part, said he’s not concerned about the long-term effects of taking ketamine.

“What I worry about,” Mathis said, “is what my health would have done without it.”

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Mindfulness-Based Prevention Outcomes for Cocaine Dependence Improved by Ketamine Injection

A single ketamine infusion improved several treatment outcomes in adults with cocaine dependence who were engaged in mindfulness-based behavior modification, according to study data published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Individuals seeking treatment for cocaine dependence (n=55) were randomly assigned to receive a 40-minute intravenous infusion of either ketamine (0.5 mg/kg) or midazolam (0.025 mg/kg) as part of a five-week trial. Patients were hospitalized for five days in a psychiatric research unit, during which time they received daily sessions of mindfulness-based relapse prevention. On day 2, patients received their infusion; on day 5, they were discharged. Patients then attended twice-weekly follow-up visits for four weeks, at which they continued their sessions and were assessed for various clinical variables. Cocaine use after discharge was assessed via patient interview and urine toxicology screening. A six-month follow-up interview was also conducted by telephone.

Demographic and clinical variables were similar in patients who received ketamine (n=27) and patients who received midazolam (n=28). Route of cocaine ingestion was controlled for in all analyses. A total of 48.2% of patients in the ketamine group remained abstinent during the last two weeks of the trial compared with 10.7% of the midazolam group. The odds of end-of-study abstinence in the ketamine group was nearly six times that in the midazolam group (odds ratio, 5.7; 95% CI, 1.3-25.1; =.02). Per Cox regression analysis, the ketamine group was 53% less likely to relapse compared with the midazolam group (hazard ratio, 0.47; 95% CI, 0.24-0.92; =.03). In addition, craving scores were 58.1% lower in the ketamine group than in the midazolam group (=.01). At the six-month telephone follow-up interview, 12 patients (44%) in the ketamine group reported abstinence compared with none in the midazolam group. The percentage of abstinent individuals was significantly associated with treatment group (<.001). 

A single ketamine infusion was associated with significantly improved treatment outcomes compared with midazolam in a cohort of adults with cocaine dependence. Further research in a larger sample is needed to confirm these findings.

Reference

Dakwar E, Nunes EV, Hart CL, et al. A single ketamine infusion combined with mindfulness-based behavioral modification to treat cocaine dependence: a randomized clinical trial [published online June 24, 2019]. Am J Psychiatry. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2019.18101123

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Ketamine Study Reveals How to Make It an Even Better Depression Treatment

In early March, the FDA approved a nasal spray for depression based on ketamine, a substance once known only as a rave drug. Despite its reputation, ketamine is so promising as an anti-depressant that it will soon be available in licensed clinics throughout the country. A study published in Science on Thursday proposes the new treatment can be made even better.

In their paper, a team of scientists at Weill Cornell’s Medicine’s Feil Family Brain and Mind Research Institute show that ketamine can help the brain reform synapses, crucial connections between neurons, that can alleviate depressive symptoms. Ketamine is already famous for working quickly to relieve depressive symptoms — within days or hours — co-author Conor Liston, Ph.D., tells Inverse, but maintaining those crucial connections is key to extending its effects.

“Our study shows that the formation of new connections (synapses) between brain cells is required for sustaining ketamine’s antidepressant effects in the days after treatment,” says Liston, also professor of neuroscience at Weill Cornell. “Ketamine is an exciting new treatment for depression that differs from drugs like SSRIs in that it relieves symptoms rapidly. However, those effects are not always sustained.”

upset, depressed
Ketamine-based nasal spray is a new FDA-licensed drug for treatment-resistant depression.

Growing Back Dendritic Spines

In a mouse model, Liston and his co-authors demonstrated that doses of ketamine helped mouse brains regrow dendritic spines, small protrusions on neurons that help them pick up signals rom other cells that, crucially, degrade during exposure to chronic stress. These dendritic spines are a key part of synapse formation.

The degradation of these spines is not a perfect analog to human depression, but humans have them as well, and Liston points out that some of the most important features of depression in humans are also present in chronically stressed mice.

To create depression-like conditions, the team degraded the dendritic spines in their mice using stress hormones. Then, they gave one group a dose of ketamine, which they expected to have anti-depressive effects.

dendritic spine
A dendritic spine helps form a synapse — a connection to another neuron.

The dose of ketamine not only changed the mice’s behavior — they tried harder to escape their cages — it also helped reform the dendritic spines in their brains. Interestingly, the ketamine didn’t form random dendritic spines but actually seemed to replace the old ones that had been degraded by constant stress. Of the new spines formed, 47.7 percent grew within two micrometers of where the old ones once were.

Why Dendritic Spines Are Important

The new dendritic spines serve an important purpose in the mouse brains. Within three hours of treatment, previously damaged circuits in the prefrontal cortex were starting to come back online, but this happened before new synapses form. At the end of the experiment, an estimated 20.4 to 31.0 percent of the lost synapses were restored after the mice took ketamine.

The fact that the circuits were restored before the synapses reformed suggests that ketamine jump-starts a two-step process that fights depression. The first step is the rapid anti-depressant effect that is seen in so many studies. The second step — regrowing the spines and restoring synapses — occurs more slowly, which means it’s the one scientists should focus on if they’re looking to make ketamine’s effects on depression last longer, Liston says.

When Liston used blue light to artificially remove the newly grown spines in a follow-up experiment, the mice relapsed into depressive symptoms. It suggested that maintaining these dendritic spines is important in keeping depression at bay.

“Our results suggest that interventions aimed at enhancing the survival of newly formed connections in prefrontal brain circuits could be useful for augmenting ketamine’s antidepressant effects by increasing their durability in the days and weeks after treatments.”

The FDA’s approval of a ketamine-based drug to treat depression was groundbreaking in itself, especially since it works differently than other anti-depressant drugs. But just because it’s been approved doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to improve it. Depression can be alleviated with ketamine, but for now the illness constantly threatens individuals with remission. Preventing the potential for a relapse with the promise of longer-lasting effects is one way to make this already remarkable drug even more helpful.

tructured Abstract

INTRODUCTION

Depression is an episodic form of mental illness, yet the circuit-level mechanisms driving the induction, remission, and recurrence of depressive episodes over time are not well understood. Ketamine relieves depressive symptoms rapidly, providing an opportunity to study the neurobiological substrates of transitions from depression to remission and to test whether mechanisms that induce antidepressant effects acutely are distinct from those that sustain them.

RATIONALE

Contrasting changes in dendritic spine density in prefrontal cortical pyramidal cells have been associated with the emergence of depression-related behaviors in chronic stress models and with ketamine’s antidepressant effects. But whether and how dendritic spine remodeling is causally involved, or whether it is merely correlated with these effects, is unclear. To answer these questions, we used two-photon imaging to study how chronic stress and ketamine affect dendritic spine remodeling and neuronal activity dynamics in the living prefrontal cortex (PFC), as well as a recently developed optogenetic tool to manipulate the survival of newly formed spines after ketamine treatment.

RESULTS

The induction of depression-related behavior in multiple chronic stress models was associated with targeted, branch-specific elimination of postsynaptic dendritic spines and a loss of correlated multicellular ensemble activity in PFC projection neurons. Antidepressant-dose ketamine reversed these effects by selectively rescuing eliminated spines and restoring coordinated activity in multicellular ensembles that predicted motivated escape behavior. Unexpectedly, ketamine’s effects on behavior and ensemble activity preceded its effects on spine formation, indicating that spine formation was not required for inducing these effects acutely. However, individual differences in the restoration of lost spines were correlated with behavior 2 to 7 days after treatment, suggesting that spinogenesis may be important for the long-term maintenance of these effects. To test this, we used a photoactivatable probe to selectively reverse the effects of ketamine on spine formation in the PFC and found that the newly formed spines play a necessary and specific role in sustaining ketamine’s antidepressant effects on motivated escape behavior. By contrast, optically deleting a random subset of spines unrelated to ketamine treatment had no effect on behavior.

CONCLUSION

Prefrontal cortical spine formation sustains the remission of specific depression-related behaviors after ketamine treatment by restoring lost spines and rescuing coordinated ensemble activity in PFC microcircuits. Pharmacological and neurostimulatory interventions for enhancing and preserving the rescue of lost synapses may therefore be useful for promoting sustained remission.

Why is ketamine an antidepressant?

A better understanding of the mechanisms underlying the action of antidepressants is urgently needed. Moda-Sava et al. explored a possible mode of action for the drug ketamine, which has recently been shown to help patients recover from depression (see the Perspective by Beyeler). Ketamine rescued behavior in mice that was associated with depression-like phenotypes by selectively reversing stress-induced spine loss and restoring coordinated multicellular ensemble activity in prefrontal microcircuits. The initial induction of ketamine’s antidepressant effect on mouse behavior occurred independently of effects on spine formation. Instead, synaptogenesis in the prefrontal region played a critical role in nourishing these effects over time. Interventions aimed at enhancing the survival of restored synapses may thus be useful for sustaining the behavioral effects of fast-acting antidepressants.

Structured Abstract

INTRODUCTION

Depression is an episodic form of mental illness, yet the circuit-level mechanisms driving the induction, remission, and recurrence of depressive episodes over time are not well understood. Ketamine relieves depressive symptoms rapidly, providing an opportunity to study the neurobiological substrates of transitions from depression to remission and to test whether mechanisms that induce antidepressant effects acutely are distinct from those that sustain them.

RATIONALE

Contrasting changes in dendritic spine density in prefrontal cortical pyramidal cells have been associated with the emergence of depression-related behaviors in chronic stress models and with ketamine’s antidepressant effects. But whether and how dendritic spine remodeling is causally involved, or whether it is merely correlated with these effects, is unclear. To answer these questions, we used two-photon imaging to study how chronic stress and ketamine affect dendritic spine remodeling and neuronal activity dynamics in the living prefrontal cortex (PFC), as well as a recently developed optogenetic tool to manipulate the survival of newly formed spines after ketamine treatment.

RESULTS

The induction of depression-related behavior in multiple chronic stress models was associated with targeted, branch-specific elimination of postsynaptic dendritic spines and a loss of correlated multicellular ensemble activity in PFC projection neurons. Antidepressant-dose ketamine reversed these effects by selectively rescuing eliminated spines and restoring coordinated activity in multicellular ensembles that predicted motivated escape behavior. Unexpectedly, ketamine’s effects on behavior and ensemble activity preceded its effects on spine formation, indicating that spine formation was not required for inducing these effects acutely. However, individual differences in the restoration of lost spines were correlated with behavior 2 to 7 days after treatment, suggesting that spinogenesis may be important for the long-term maintenance of these effects. To test this, we used a photoactivatable probe to selectively reverse the effects of ketamine on spine formation in the PFC and found that the newly formed spines play a necessary and specific role in sustaining ketamine’s antidepressant effects on motivated escape behavior. By contrast, optically deleting a random subset of spines unrelated to ketamine treatment had no effect on behavior.

CONCLUSION

Prefrontal cortical spine formation sustains the remission of specific depression-related behaviors after ketamine treatment by restoring lost spines and rescuing coordinated ensemble activity in PFC microcircuits. Pharmacological and neurostimulatory interventions for enhancing and preserving the rescue of lost synapses may therefore be useful for promoting sustained remission.



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Ketamine-like depression treatment on track for FDA approval

CNN)A ketamine-like drug for treatment-resistant depression was backed by a US Food and Drug Administration advisory committee on Tuesday. If it is then approved by the FDA, the drug — called esketamine — may provide a new option for patients with major depressive disorder who have tried at least two other antidepressants without success.A panel of experts voted to endorse the drug, which is made in nasal spray form by the pharmaceutical company Janssen, a division of Johnson & Johnson. Fourteen members voted that the benefits outweighed the risk, with two opposed and one abstaining.

Ketamine offers lifeline for people with severe depression, suicidal thoughts
703-844-0184 | NOVA Health Recovery | Alexandria, Va 22306

Ketamine offers lifeline for people with severe depression, suicidal thoughtsThe drug is a close relative of ketamine, a powerful medication used in hospitals primarily as an anesthetic; recent scientific studies have also shown its potential with treatment-resistant depression and suicidal ideation. Ketamine is also used recreationally — and illegally — as a club drug known as Special K. It generates an intense high and dissociative effects.Esketamine, which is not FDA-approved for any conditions, targets a different brain pathway than approved antidepressants, many of which have been around for decades. It is expected to be used in combination with antidepressants, but the latter can take a month or two to take effect. Esketamine, on the other hand, might have an effect within hours or days, according to an FDA briefing document.The drug was designated as a breakthrough therapy in 2013, intending to “expedite the development and review of drugs for serious or life-threatening conditions,” the FDA says. First-line treatments don’t work for roughly 30% to 40% of patients with major depressive disorder, according to the briefing document.The FDA does not have to follow the recommendation of advisory committees, though it often does.

ERs 'flooded' with mentally ill patients with no place else to turn

ERs ‘flooded’ with mentally ill patients with no place else to turnHowever, the research behind esketamine has come under some criticism, with two of five key studies failing to meet their primary endpoints. Only one of these studies is a positive short-term trial, whereas most FDA-approved antidepressants are backed by at least two, according to the briefing document. But Janssen has maintained that the overall picture is positive.Adverse events tended to occur in the first two hours patients received the drug, including sedation, blood pressure increases and dissociation. For this reason, patients wouldn’t be able to pick it up at a local pharmacy; it would be given under the supervision of health care professionals who can keep an eye on the person during those first two hours.Because of the drug’s close relationship to ketamine, experts have also raised concerns about its potential for misuse and abuse. The clinical trials have not seen evidence of this risk, according to presentations made during the meeting.Advisory panelists also expressed concern that not enough long-term data was available to characterize the drug’s cognitive effects and other health impacts down the line.Get CNN Health’s weekly newsletter

There were six deaths of patients taking esketamine in trials, including three suicides, but FDA materials concluded “it is difficult to consider these deaths as drug-related.”The only current FDA-approved medication for treatment-resistant depression combines two other drugs already on the market. Other non-pharmaceutical treatments exist, such as electroconvulsive therapy.Janssen spokesman Greg Panico said no information about pricing would be available at this time. An FDA decision is expected in early March, he added.

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Ketamine for Chronic Pain & Depression

Intravenous Ketamine is proving to be a tremendous treatment for intractable depression as well as chronic pain.  About half the patients treated respond positively with results lasting up to a week in most of the responders.

It has emerged as a treatment option for a variety of chronic pain conditions including fibromyalgia, small fiber neuropathy, Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS), Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD) and psychiatric conditions including depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), suicidal ideation, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

Ketamine in the News

Remarkable secrets of ketamine’s antidepressant effect unlocked by scientists

Could Party Drug Ketamine Be a Treatment for Depression?

‘The fog is gone’: How ketamine could help lift hard-to-treat depression

Ketamine Research

Ketamine for Depression, 1: Clinical Summary of Issues Related to Efficacy, Adverse Effects, and Mechanism of Action.

Ketamine safety and tolerability in clinical trials for treatment-resistant depression.

Low-dose ketamine for treatment resistant depression in an academic clinical practice setting.

Symptomatology and predictors of antidepressant efficacy in extended responders to a single ketamine infusion.

How does ketamine elicit a rapid antidepressant response?

The use of ketamine as an antidepressant: a systematic review and meta-analysis.

Ketamine for rapid reduction of suicidal ideation: a randomized controlled trial.

Do the dissociative side effects of ketamine mediate its antidepressant effects?

Rapid and longer-term antidepressant effects of repeated ketamine infusions in treatment-resistant major depression.