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

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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Case Report Details Use of Buprenorphine for Treatment of Kratom Dependence

 

Kratom is an herbal supplement that shares structural similarities with opioid analgesics

Kratom is an herbal supplement that shares structural similarities with opioid analgesics

Opioid-like dependence due to chronic kratom use can be successfully treated with buprenorphine, according to a recent case report published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine.

Kratom, an herbal supplement that shares structural similarities with opioid analgesics, has recently grown in popularity as an unapproved opioid replacement therapy. The drug is easily obtained via the Internet (as it does not require a prescription), but oftentimes contains higher than typical doses and may be mixed with adulterants, increasing the risk of toxicity.

In their article, the authors report on two patients who used kratom to self-treat their chronic pain after they could no longer receive opioid analgesics from healthcare providers. Both patients presented to the clinic with evidence of kratom dependence and withdrawal and underwent home initiation of sublingual buprenorphine-naloxone therapy. In each case, transitioning to buprenorphine-naloxone maintenance led to control of both their chronic pain and opioid withdrawal symptoms.

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“Although some debate whether kratom is a true opioid or not, this case series shows that opioid agonist treatment with buprenorphine-naloxone is effective for some patients with kratom dependence and demonstrates 2 safe home initiations of buprenorphine,” concluded the authors.

 

Treatment of Kratom Dependence With Buprenorphine

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Ketamine and Psychedelic Drugs Change Structure of Neurons

ummary: A new study reveals psychedelics increase dendrites, dendritic spines and synapses, while ketamine may promote neuroplasticity. The findings could help develop new treatments for anxiety, depression and other related disorders.

Source: UC Davis.

A team of scientists at the University of California, Davis is exploring how hallucinogenic drugs impact the structure and function of neurons — research that could lead to new treatments for depression, anxiety, and related disorders. In a paper published on June 12 in the journal Cell Reports, they demonstrate that a wide range of psychedelic drugs, including well-known compounds such as LSD and MDMA, increase the number of neuronal branches (dendrites), the density of small protrusions on these branches (dendritic spines), and the number of connections between neurons (synapses). These structural changes suggest that psychedelics are capable of repairing the circuits that are malfunctioning in mood and anxiety disorders.

“People have long assumed that psychedelics are capable of altering neuronal structure, but this is the first study that clearly and unambiguously supports that hypothesis. What is really exciting is that psychedelics seem to mirror the effects produced by ketamine,” said David Olson, assistant professor in the Departments of Chemistry and of Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine, who leads the research team.

Ketamine, an anesthetic, has been receiving a lot of attention lately because it produces rapid antidepressant effects in treatment-resistant populations, leading the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to fast-track clinical trials of two antidepressant drugs based on ketamine. The antidepressant properties of ketamine may stem from its tendency to promote neural plasticity — the ability of neurons to rewire their connections.

“The rapid effects of ketamine on mood and plasticity are truly astounding. The big question we were trying to answer was whether or not other compounds are capable of doing what ketamine does,” Olson said.

Psychedelics show similar effects to ketamine

Olson’s group has demonstrated that psychedelics mimic the effects of ketamine on neurons grown in a dish, and that these results extend to structural and electrical properties of neurons in animals. Rats treated with a single dose of DMT — a psychedelic compound found in the Amazonian herbal tea known as ayahuasca — showed an increase in the number of dendritic spines, similar to that seen with ketamine treatment. DMT itself is very short-lived in the rat: Most of the drug is eliminated within an hour. But the “rewiring” effects on the brain could be seen 24 hours later, demonstrating that these effects last for some time.

Fairfax | NOVA Ketamine IV Ketamine for depression | Fairfax, Va 22306 | 703-844-0184
Fairfax | NOVA Ketamine IV Ketamine for depression | Fairfax, Va 22306 | 703-844-0184

Ketamine and Psychedelic Drugs Change Structure of Neurons

Summary: A new study reveals psychedelics increase dendrites, dendritic spines and synapses, while ketamine may promote neuroplasticity. The findings could help develop new treatments for anxiety, depression and other related disorders.

Source: UC Davis.

A team of scientists at the University of California, Davis is exploring how hallucinogenic drugs impact the structure and function of neurons — research that could lead to new treatments for depression, anxiety, and related disorders. In a paper published on June 12 in the journal Cell Reports, they demonstrate that a wide range of psychedelic drugs, including well-known compounds such as LSD and MDMA, increase the number of neuronal branches (dendrites), the density of small protrusions on these branches (dendritic spines), and the number of connections between neurons (synapses). These structural changes suggest that psychedelics are capable of repairing the circuits that are malfunctioning in mood and anxiety disorders.

“People have long assumed that psychedelics are capable of altering neuronal structure, but this is the first study that clearly and unambiguously supports that hypothesis. What is really exciting is that psychedelics seem to mirror the effects produced by ketamine,” said David Olson, assistant professor in the Departments of Chemistry and of Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine, who leads the research team.

Ketamine, an anesthetic, has been receiving a lot of attention lately because it produces rapid antidepressant effects in treatment-resistant populations, leading the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to fast-track clinical trials of two antidepressant drugs based on ketamine. The antidepressant properties of ketamine may stem from its tendency to promote neural plasticity — the ability of neurons to rewire their connections.

“The rapid effects of ketamine on mood and plasticity are truly astounding. The big question we were trying to answer was whether or not other compounds are capable of doing what ketamine does,” Olson said.

Psychedelics show similar effects to ketamine

Olson’s group has demonstrated that psychedelics mimic the effects of ketamine on neurons grown in a dish, and that these results extend to structural and electrical properties of neurons in animals. Rats treated with a single dose of DMT — a psychedelic compound found in the Amazonian herbal tea known as ayahuasca — showed an increase in the number of dendritic spines, similar to that seen with ketamine treatment. DMT itself is very short-lived in the rat: Most of the drug is eliminated within an hour. But the “rewiring” effects on the brain could be seen 24 hours later, demonstrating that these effects last for some time.

image shows neurons under psychedelics and ketamine

Psychedelic drugs such as LSD and ayahuasca change the structure of nerve cells, causing them to sprout more branches and spines, UC Davis researchers have found. This could help in “rewiring” the brain to treat depression and other disorders. In this false-colored image, the rainbow-colored cell was treated with LSD compared to a control cell in blue. NeuroscienceNews.com image is credited to Calvin and Joanne Ly.

Behavioral studies also hint at the similarities between psychedelics and ketamine. In another recent paper published in ACS Chemical Neuroscience, Olson’s group showed that DMT treatment enabled rats to overcome a “fear response” to the memory of a mild electric shock. This test is considered to be a model of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and interestingly, ketamine produces the same effect. Recent clinical trials have shown that like ketamine, DMT-containing ayahuasca might have fast-acting effects in people with recurrent depression, Olson said.

These discoveries potentially open doors for the development of novel drugs to treat mood and anxiety disorders, Olson said. His team has proposed the term “psychoplastogen” to describe this new class of “plasticity-promoting” compounds.

“Ketamine is no longer our only option. Our work demonstrates that there are a number of distinct chemical scaffolds capable of promoting plasticity like ketamine, providing additional opportunities for medicinal chemists to develop safer and more effective alternatives,” Olson said.

 

Psychedelic drugs, ketamine change structure of neurons

Psychedelic drugs, ketamine change structure of neurons

Psychedelics as Possible Treatments for Depression and PTSD

A team of scientists at the University of California, Davis, is exploring how hallucinogenic drugs impact the structure and function of neurons — research that could lead to new treatments for depression, anxiety and related disorders.

In a paper published on June 12 in the journal Cell Reports, they demonstrate that a wide range of psychedelic drugs, including well-known compounds such as LSD and MDMA, increase the number of neuronal branches (dendrites), the density of small protrusions on these branches (dendritic spines) and the number of connections between neurons (synapses). These structural changes could suggest that psychedelics are capable of repairing the circuits that are malfunctioning in mood and anxiety disorders.

“People have long assumed that psychedelics are capable of altering neuronal structure, but this is the first study that clearly and unambiguously supports that hypothesis. What is really exciting is that psychedelics seem to mirror the effects produced by ketamine,” said David Olson, assistant professor in the departments of Chemistry and of Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine, who leads the research team.

Ketamine, an anesthetic, has been receiving a lot of attention lately because it produces rapid antidepressant effects in treatment-resistant populations, leading the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to fast-track clinical trials of two antidepressant drugs based on ketamine. The antidepressant properties of ketamine may stem from its tendency to promote neural plasticity — the ability of neurons to rewire their connections.

“The rapid effects of ketamine on mood and plasticity are truly astounding. The big question we were trying to answer was whether or not other compounds are capable of doing what ketamine does,” Olson said.

Psychedelics show similar effects to ketamine

Olson’s group has demonstrated that psychedelics mimic the effects of ketamine on neurons grown in a dish, and that these results extend to structural and electrical properties of neurons in animals. Rats treated with a single dose of DMT — a psychedelic compound found in the Amazonian herbal tea known as ayahuasca — showed an increase in the number of dendritic spines, similar to that seen with ketamine treatment. DMT itself is very short-lived in the rat: Most of the drug is eliminated within an hour. But the “rewiring” effects on the brain could be seen 24 hours later, demonstrating that these effects last for some time.

Behavioral studies also hint at the similarities between psychedelics and ketamine. In another recent paper published in ACS Chemical Neuroscience, Olson’s group showed that DMT treatment enabled rats to overcome a “fear response” to the memory of a mild electric shock. This test is considered to be a model of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and interestingly, ketamine produces the same effect. Recent clinical trials have shown that like ketamine, DMT-containing ayahuasca might have fast-acting effects in people with recurrent depression, Olson said.

These discoveries potentially open doors for the development of novel drugs to treat mood and anxiety disorders, Olson said. His team has proposed the term “psychoplastogen” to describe this new class of “plasticity-promoting” compounds.

“Ketamine is no longer our only option. Our work demonstrates that there are a number of distinct chemical scaffolds capable of promoting plasticity like ketamine, providing additional opportunities for medicinal chemists to develop safer and more effective alternatives,” Olson said.

Additional co-authors on the Cell Reports “Psychedelics Promote Structural and Functional Neural Plasticity.” study are Calvin Ly, Alexandra Greb, Sina Soltanzadeh Zarandi, Lindsay Cameron, Jonathon Wong, Eden Barragan, Paige Wilson, Michael Paddy, Kassandra Ori-McKinney, Kyle Burbach, Megan Dennis, Alexander Sood, Whitney Duim, Kimberley McAllister and John Gray.

Olson and Cameron were co-authors on the ACS Chemical Neuroscience paper along with Charlie Benson and Lee Dunlap.

The work was partly supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health.

Psychedelics Promote Structural and Functional
Neural Plasticity

Below is the Intro and Discussion for the article:

Psychedelics Promote Structural and Functional neural Plasticity

Authors:

Calvin Ly, Alexandra C. Greb,
Lindsay P. Cameron, …,
Kassandra M. Ori-McKenney,
John A. Gray, David E. Olson
Correspondence
deolson@ucdavis.edu

In Brief
Ly et al. demonstrate that psychedelic
compounds such as LSD, DMT, and DOI
increase dendritic arbor complexity,
promote dendritic spine growth, and
stimulate synapse formation. These
cellular effects are similar to those
produced by the fast-acting
antidepressant ketamine and highlight
the potential of psychedelics for treating
depression and related disorders.

  • Highlights
     Serotonergic psychedelics increase neuritogenesis,
    spinogenesis, and synaptogenesis
  •  Psychedelics promote plasticity via an evolutionarily
    conserved mechanism
  •  TrkB, mTOR, and 5-HT2A signaling underlie psychedelicinduced
    plasticity
  •  Noribogaine, but not ibogaine, is capable of promoting
    structural neural plasticity

SUMMARY
Atrophy of neurons in the prefrontal cortex (PFC)
plays a key role in the pathophysiology of depression
and related disorders. The ability to promote
both structural and functional plasticity in the PFC
has been hypothesized to underlie the fast-acting
antidepressant properties of the dissociative anesthetic
ketamine. Here, we report that, like ketamine,
serotonergic psychedelics are capable of robustly
increasing neuritogenesis and/or spinogenesis both
in vitro and in vivo. These changes in neuronal structure
are accompanied by increased synapse number
and function, as measured by fluorescence microscopy
and electrophysiology. The structural changes
induced by psychedelics appear to result from stimulation
of the TrkB, mTOR, and 5-HT2A signaling
pathways and could possibly explain the clinical
effectiveness of these compounds. Our results underscore
the therapeutic potential of psychedelics
and, importantly, identify several lead scaffolds for
medicinal chemistry efforts focused on developing
plasticity-promoting compounds as safe, effective,
and fast-acting treatments for depression and
related disorders.

INTRODUCTION
Neuropsychiatric diseases, including mood and anxiety disorders,
are some of the leading causes of disability worldwide
and place an enormous economic burden on society (Gustavsson
et al., 2011; Whiteford et al., 2013). Approximately
one-third of patients will not respond to current antidepressant
drugs, and those who do will usually require at least 2–4 weeks
of treatment before they experience any beneficial effects
(Rush et al., 2006). Depression, post-traumatic stress disorder
(PTSD), and addiction share common neural circuitry (Arnsten,
2009; Russo et al., 2009; Peters et al., 2010; Russo and
Nestler, 2013) and have high comorbidity (Kelly and Daley,
2013). A preponderance of evidence from a combination of
human imaging, postmortem studies, and animal models suggests
that atrophy of neurons in the prefrontal cortex (PFC)
plays a key role in the pathophysiology of depression and
related disorders and is precipitated and/or exacerbated by
stress (Arnsten, 2009; Autry and Monteggia, 2012; Christoffel
et al., 2011; Duman and Aghajanian, 2012; Duman et al.,
2016; Izquierdo et al., 2006; Pittenger and Duman, 2008;
Qiao et al., 2016; Russo and Nestler, 2013). These structural
changes, such as the retraction of neurites, loss of dendritic
spines, and elimination of synapses, can potentially be counteracted
by compounds capable of promoting structural and
functional neural plasticity in the PFC (Castre´ n and Antila,
2017; Cramer et al., 2011; Duman, 2002; Hayley and Litteljohn,
2013; Kolb and Muhammad, 2014; Krystal et al., 2009;
Mathew et al., 2008), providing a general solution to treating
all of these related diseases. However, only a relatively small
number of compounds capable of promoting plasticity in the
PFC have been identified so far, each with significant drawbacks
(Castre´ n and Antila, 2017). Of these, the dissociative
anesthetic ketamine has shown the most promise, revitalizing
the field of molecular psychiatry in recent years.
Ketamine has demonstrated remarkable clinical potential as a
fast-acting antidepressant (Berman et al., 2000; Ionescu et al.,
2016; Zarate et al., 2012), even exhibiting efficacy in treatmentresistant
populations (DiazGranados et al., 2010; Murrough
et al., 2013; Zarate et al., 2006). Additionally, it has shown promise
for treating PTSD (Feder et al., 2014) and heroin addiction
(Krupitsky et al., 2002). Animal models suggest that its therapeutic
effects stem from its ability to promote the growth of dendritic
spines, increase the synthesis of synaptic proteins, and
strengthen synaptic responses (Autry et al., 2011; Browne and
Lucki, 2013; Li et al., 2010).

Like ketamine, serotonergic psychedelics and entactogens
have demonstrated rapid and long-lasting antidepressant and
anxiolytic effects in the clinic after a single dose (Bouso et al.,
2008; Carhart-Harris and Goodwin, 2017; Grob et al., 2011;
Mithoefer et al., 2013, 2016; Nichols et al., 2017; Sanches
et al., 2016; Oso´ rio et al., 2015), including in treatment-resistant
populations (Carhart-Harris et al., 2016, 2017; Mithoefer et al.,
2011; Oehen et al., 2013; Rucker et al., 2016). In fact, there
have been numerous clinical trials in the past 30 years examining
the therapeutic effects of these drugs (Dos Santos et al., 2016),
with 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) recently
receiving the ‘‘breakthrough therapy’’ designation by the Food
and Drug Administration for treating PTSD. Furthermore, classical
psychedelics and entactogens produce antidepressant
and anxiolytic responses in rodent behavioral tests, such as
the forced swim test (Cameron et al., 2018) and fear extinction
learning (Cameron et al., 2018; Catlow et al., 2013; Young
et al., 2015), paradigms for which ketamine has also been shown
to be effective (Autry et al., 2011; Girgenti et al., 2017; Li et al.,
2010). Despite the promising antidepressant, anxiolytic, and
anti-addictive properties of serotonergic psychedelics, their
therapeutic mechanism of action remains poorly understood,
and concerns about safety have severely limited their clinical
usefulness.
Because of the similarities between classical serotonergic
psychedelics and ketamine in both preclinical models and clinical
studies, we reasoned that their therapeutic effects might
result from a shared ability to promote structural and functional
neural plasticity in cortical neurons. Here, we report that serotonergic
psychedelics and entactogens from a variety of chemical
classes (e.g., amphetamine, tryptamine, and ergoline) display
plasticity-promoting properties comparable to or greater than
ketamine. Like ketamine, these compounds stimulate structural
plasticity by activating the mammalian target of rapamycin
(mTOR). To classify the growing number of compounds capable
of rapidly promoting induced plasticity (Castre´ n and Antila,
2017), we introduce the term ‘‘psychoplastogen,’’ from the
Greek roots psych- (mind), -plast (molded), and -gen (producing).
Our work strengthens the growing body of literature indicating
that psychoplastogens capable of promoting plasticity
in the PFC might have value as fast-acting antidepressants
and anxiolytics with efficacy in treatment-resistant populations
and suggests that it may be possible to use classical psychedelics
as lead structures for identifying safer alternatives.

DISCUSSION
Classical serotonergic psychedelics are known to cause
changes in mood (Griffiths et al., 2006, 2008, 2011) and brain
function (Carhart-Harris et al., 2017) that persist long after the
acute effects of the drugs have subsided. Moreover, several
psychedelics elevate glutamate levels in the cortex (Nichols,
2004, 2016) and increase gene expression in vivo of the neurotrophin
BDNF as well as immediate-early genes associated with
plasticity (Martin et al., 2014; Nichols and Sanders-Bush, 2002;
Vaidya et al., 1997). This indirect evidence has led to the
reasonable hypothesis that psychedelics promote structural
and functional neural plasticity, although this assumption had
never been rigorously tested (Bogenschutz and Pommy,
2012; Vollenweider and Kometer, 2010). The data presented
here provide direct evidence for this hypothesis, demonstrating
that psychedelics cause both structural and functional changes
in cortical neurons.

Prior to this study, two reports suggested
that psychedelics might be able
to produce changes in neuronal structure.
Jones et al. (2009) demonstrated that DOI
was capable of transiently increasing the
size of dendritic spines on cortical neurons,
but no change in spine density was
observed. The second study showed
that DOI promoted neurite extension in a
cell line of neuronal lineage (Marinova
et al., 2017). Both of these reports utilized
DOI, a psychedelic of the amphetamine
class. Here we demonstrate that the ability
to change neuronal structure is not a
unique property of amphetamines like
DOI because psychedelics from the ergoline,
tryptamine, and iboga classes of compounds also promote
structural plasticity. Additionally, D-amphetamine does not increase
the complexity of cortical dendritic arbors in culture,
and therefore, these morphological changes cannot be simply
attributed to an increase in monoamine neurotransmission.
The identification of psychoplastogens belonging to distinct
chemical families is an important aspect of this work because
it suggests that ketamine is not unique in its ability to promote
structural and functional plasticity. In addition to ketamine, the
prototypical psychoplastogen, only a relatively small number of
plasticity-promoting small molecules have been identified previously.
Such compounds include the N-methyl-D-aspartate
(NMDA) receptor ligand GLYX-13 (i.e., rapastinel), the mGlu2/3
antagonist LY341495, the TrkB agonist 7,8-DHF, and the muscarinic
receptor antagonist scopolamine (Lepack et al., 2016; Castello
et al., 2014; Zeng et al., 2012; Voleti et al., 2013). We
observe that hallucinogens from four distinct structural classes
(i.e., tryptamine, amphetamine, ergoline, and iboga) are also
potent psychoplastogens, providing additional lead scaffolds
for medicinal chemistry efforts aimed at identifying neurotherapeutics.
Furthermore, our cellular assays revealed that several
of these compounds were more efficacious (e.g., MDMA) or more potent (e.g., LSD) than ketamine. In fact, the plasticity-promoting
properties of psychedelics and entactogens rivaled that
of BDNF (Figures 3A–3C and S3). The extreme potency of LSD
in particular might be due to slow off kinetics, as recently proposed
following the disclosure of the LSD-bound 5-HT2B crystal
structure (Wacker et al., 2017).
Importantly, the psychoplastogenic effects of psychedelics in
cortical cultures were also observed in vivo using both vertebrate
and invertebrate models, demonstrating that they act through an
evolutionarily conserved mechanism. Furthermore, the concentrations
of psychedelics utilized in our in vitro cell culture assays
were consistent with those reached in the brain following systemic
administration of therapeutic doses in rodents (Yang
et al., 2018; Cohen and Vogel, 1972). This suggests that neuritogenesis,
spinogenesis, and/or synaptogenesis assays performed
using cortical cultures might have value for identifying
psychoplastogens and fast-acting antidepressants. It should
be noted that our structural plasticity studies performed in vitro
utilized neurons exposed to psychedelics for extended periods
of time. Because brain exposure to these compounds is often
of short duration due to rapid metabolism, it will be interesting
to assess the kinetics of psychedelic-induced plasticity.
A key question in the field of psychedelic medicine has been
whether or not psychedelics promote changes in the density of
dendritic spines (Kyzar et al., 2017). Using super-resolution
SIM, we clearly demonstrate that psychedelics do, in fact, increase
the density of dendritic spines on cortical neurons, an effect
that is not restricted to a particular structural class of compounds.
Using DMT, we verified that cortical neuron spine
density increases in vivo and that these changes in structural
plasticity are accompanied by functional effects such as
increased amplitude and frequency of spontaneous EPSCs.

We specifically designed these experiments
to mimic previous studies of ketamine
(Li et al., 2010) so that we might
directly compare these two compounds,
and, to a first approximation, they appear
to be remarkably similar. Not only do they
both increase spine density and neuronal
excitability in the cortex, they seem to
have similar behavioral effects. We have
shown previously that, like ketamine,
DMT promotes fear extinction learning
and has antidepressant effects in the
forced swim test (Cameron et al., 2018). These results, coupled
with the fact that ayahuasca, a DMT-containing concoction, has
potent antidepressant effects in humans (Oso´ rio et al., 2015;
Sanches et al., 2016; Santos et al., 2007), suggests that classical
psychedelics and ketamine might share a related therapeutic
mechanism.
Although the molecular targets of ketamine and psychedelics
are different (NMDA and 5-HT2A receptors, respectively), they
appear to cause similar downstream effects on structural plasticity
by activating mTOR. This finding is significant because ketamine is
known to be addictive whereas many classical psychedelics are
not (Nutt et al., 2007, 2010). The exact mechanisms by which these
compounds stimulate mTOR is still not entirely understood, but
our data suggest that, at least for classical psychedelics, TrkB
and 5-HT2A receptors are involved. Although most classical psychedelics
are not considered to be addictive, there are still significant
safety concerns with their use in medicine because they
cause profound perceptual disturbances and still have the potential
to be abused. Therefore, the identification of non-hallucinogenic
analogs capable of promoting plasticity in the PFC could
facilitate a paradigm shift in our approach to treating neuropsychiatric
diseases. Moreover, such compounds could be critical to
resolving the long-standing debate in the field concerning whether
the subjective effects of psychedelics are necessary for their therapeutic
effects (Majic et al., 2015  ). Although our group is actively
investigating the psychoplastogenic properties of non-hallucinogenic
analogs of psychedelics, others have reported the therapeutic
potential of safer structural and functional analogs of ketamine
(Moskal et al., 2017; Yang et al., 2015; Zanos et al., 2016).
Our data demonstrate that classical psychedelics from several
distinct chemical classes are capable of robustly promoting the
growth of both neurites and dendritic spines in vitro, in vivo, and across species. Importantly, our studies highlight the similarities
between the effects of ketamine and those of classical serotonergic
psychedelics, supporting the hypothesis that the clinical
antidepressant and anxiolytic effects of these molecules might
result from their ability to promote structural and functional plasticity
in prefrontal cortical neurons. We have demonstrated that
the plasticity-promoting properties of psychedelics require
TrkB, mTOR, and 5-HT2A signaling, suggesting that these key
signaling hubs may serve as potential targets for the development
of psychoplastogens, fast-acting antidepressants, and anxiolytics.
Taken together, our results suggest that psychedelics
may be used as lead structures to identify next-generation neurotherapeutics
with improved efficacy and safety profiles.

Also below is a great article on DMT and neuroplasticity:

 

Dark Classics in Chemical Neuroscience N,N-Dimethyltryptamine DMT

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Blocking microglial pannexin-1 channels alleviates morphine withdrawal symptoms

Opiates are essential for treating pain, but termination of
opiate therapy can cause a debilitating withdrawal syndrome
in chronic users. To alleviate or avoid the aversive symptoms
of withdrawal, many of these individuals continue to use
opiates1–4. Withdrawal is therefore a key determinant of opiate
use in dependent individuals, yet its underlying mechanisms
are poorly understood and effective therapies are lacking. Here,
we identify the pannexin-1 (Panx1) channel as a therapeutic
target in opiate withdrawal. We show that withdrawal from
morphine induces long-term synaptic facilitation in lamina I
and II neurons within the rodent spinal dorsal horn, a principal
site of action for opiate analgesia. Genetic ablation of Panx1
in microglia abolished the spinal synaptic facilitation and
ameliorated the sequelae of morphine withdrawal. Panx1
is unique in its permeability to molecules up to 1 kDa in size
and its release of ATP5,6. We show that Panx1 activation
drives ATP release from microglia during morphine withdrawal
and that degrading endogenous spinal ATP by administering
apyrase produces a reduction in withdrawal behaviors.
Conversely, we found that pharmacological inhibition of
ATP breakdown exacerbates withdrawal. Treatment with
a Panx1-blocking peptide (10panx) or the clinically used
broad-spectrum Panx1 blockers, mefloquine or probenecid,
suppressed ATP release and reduced withdrawal severity.
Our results demonstrate that Panx1-mediated ATP release
from microglia is required for morphine withdrawal in rodents
and that blocking Panx1 alleviates the severity of withdrawal
without affecting opiate analgesia. 

Could This Inexpensive Medication Reduce Your Withdrawal Symptoms?

Could This Inexpensive Medication Reduce Your Withdrawal Symptoms?

Withdrawal. It’s a huge hurdle on the path to recovery.

Those struggling to leave opioids behind know they’ll eventually have to face the intimidating mental and physical effects of withdrawal. It’s a powerful and frightening thought.

Some of the most common withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Muscle aches and cramps
  • Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
  • Anxiety, profuse sweating, and restlessness
  • Blurry vision
  • High blood pressure

Help Where It’s Needed Most

Even though millions of Americans are in the midst of this battle, few medications are available to effectively manage their symptoms. This unavailability – and the onset of painful withdrawal symptoms – are often enough to make many people give up and return to opioids for relief.

But this could soon change…

According to the results of a recent study, help for intense withdrawal symptoms might be on the horizon, thanks to the discovery of a new drug.

“Opioid withdrawal is aversive, debilitating, and can compel individuals to continue using the drug in order to prevent these symptoms,” explains lead researcher Tuan Trang, PhD.

“In our study, we effectively alleviated withdrawal symptoms in rodents, which could have important implications for patients that may wish to decrease or stop their use of these medications.”

The Study

Researchers from the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Hotchkiss Brain Institute investigated the process of withdrawal and its’ possible causes. The study involved rats which had been given two potent opioids, morphine and fentanyl. The team identified the glycoprotein, pannexin-1, as the source of withdrawal symptoms in rodents. Pannexin-1 is also located throughout the human body, including the brain and spinal cord.

After identifying the cause of these symptoms, the team tested a drug already proven to block the effects of pannexin-1 called, Probenecid. It’s an anti-gout medication that’s fairly cheap and has few side effects.

The results showed this medicine was “effective in reducing the severity of withdrawal symptoms in opioid-dependent rodents.” Another encouraging aspect about their findings: the medication didn’t affect an opioids’ ability to relieve pain.

Previous research hadn’t explored this avenue, and this investigation has provided a better understanding of opioid withdrawal at the cellular level.

The Implications

Canadian pain researcher, Dr. Michael Salter, notes, “This is an exciting study which reveals a new mechanism and a potential therapeutic target for managing opioid withdrawal. The findings of Dr. Trang and his team could have important implications for people on opioid therapy and those attempting to stop opioid use.”

The team behind the study plan to continue their work and hope this new insight will lead to the creation of a more effective treatment method for the symptoms of withdrawal. Dr. Trang says their next steps will be to determine the drug effectiveness in humans and to ensure its’ safety. Their goal is to develop an effective method to treat the millions struggling with pain management and opioid dependency across the nation and around the world.

These results have already lead to the development of a clinical trial at the Calgary Pain Clinic.

 

FDA approves first medication to reduce opioid withdrawal symptoms

Announcement

May 16, 2018

LofexidineCourtesy of US WorldMeds, LLC.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the National Institutes of Health, is pleased to announce that lofexidine, the first medication for use in reducing symptoms associated with opioid withdrawal in adults, has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Lofexidine, an oral tablet, is designed to manage the symptoms patients often experience during opioid discontinuation. Opioid withdrawal symptoms, which can begin as early as a few hours after the drug was last taken, may include aches and pains, muscle spasms/twitching, stomach cramps, muscular tension, heart pounding, insomnia/problems sleeping, feelings of coldness, runny eyes, yawning, and feeling sick, among others. The product will be marketed under the brand name LUCEMYRATM.

In 2016, more than 42,000 people died from an opioid overdose, or approximately 115 people per day. Although effective treatments exist for opioid addiction, painful and difficult withdrawal is one of the reasons treatment fails, and relapse occurs. By alleviating symptoms associated with opioid withdrawal, LUCEMYRA could help patients complete their discontinuation of opioids and facilitate successful treatment. To date, no other medications have been approved to treat opioid withdrawal symptoms.

LUCEMYRA will be marketed by US WorldMeds, a specialty pharmaceutical company that acquired a license for lofexidine from Britannia Pharmaceuticals in 2003. NIDA provided funding to US WorldMeds to support clinical trials to document the clinical pharmacokinetics of lofexidine and to test medical safety and efficacy of the medication, as compared to a placebo, among patients undergoing medically supervised opioid discontinuation. LUCEMYRA is expected to be commercially available in the United States in August 2018.

Read FDA press release: FDA approves the first non-opioid treatment for management of opioid withdrawal symptoms in adults

Read NIDA Director Dr. Nora Volkow’s blog: NIDA-Supported Science Leads to First FDA-Approved Medication for Opioid Withdrawal

For more information about opioids, go to the Opioids webpage. For information about treatment approaches for drug addiction, go to Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction.

Medication for Opioid Withdrawal

 

May 16, 2018

Image of drug Lucemyra (Lofexidine)Courtesy of US WorldMeds, LLC

In 2016, 115 Americans died every day from an overdose involving prescription or illicit opioids. Addiction to any drug has multiple components—altered functioning of the reward system, learned associations with drug cues that promote preoccupation and craving, and changes to prefrontal circuits necessary for proper exertion of self-control. But physiological and psychological withdrawal symptoms play a major role in driving users repeatedly back to the drug, despite efforts to stop using.

Withdrawal is notoriously hard to endure for people addicted to opioids. Physical symptoms can start a few hours after last taking the drug and may include stomach cramps, aches and pains, coldness, muscle spasms or tension, pounding heart, insomnia, and many others. These symptoms, along with mood changes, like depression and anxiety, are a major reason people with opioid addiction may relapse. Yet until now, no medication has been approved to treat withdrawal.

This week, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved lofexidine, the first medication targeted specifically to treat the physical symptoms associated with opioid withdrawal. NIDA’s medications development program helped fund the science leading to the drug’s approval. Lofexidine could benefit the thousands of Americans seeking medical help for their opioid addiction, by helping them stick to their detoxification or treatment regimens.

Two of the three FDA-approved medications to treat opioid use disorder, methadone and buprenorphine, can be initiated while a person is experiencing withdrawal symptoms, and can help curb craving. However, these medications are not always easy to access, and at this point are only received by a minority of people with opioid use disorder. The third FDA-approved drug, extended-release naltrexone, has also been found effective, but only after people have been fully detoxified.  The need to detox first—and endure those symptoms—prevents many patients from being treated with naltrexone. Lofexidine could make a big difference in making the latter treatment option more widely used.

New Nonopioid Med Blunts Drug Withdrawal Symptoms  < Medscape

Lofexidine is not an opioid. It acts to inhibit the release of norepinephrine in the brain and elsewhere in the nervous system. It was originally developed as a medication for hypertension, but has mainly been used for opioid withdrawal in the United Kingdom since the early 1990s. US WorldMeds acquired a license for lofexidine from Britannia Pharmaceuticals in 2003 and will market it in the US under the brand name LUCEMYRATM beginning this summer. NIDA helped fund the clinical trials to test lofexidine’s pharmacological properties, safety, and efficacy in patients who were discontinuing opioid use under medical supervision.

Lofexidine cannot address the psychological symptoms of opioid withdrawal; further research is needed to develop medications that could address mood problems during detoxification and after. But approval of the first medication to treat the physical symptoms of opioid withdrawal is a major milestone, one that could improve the lives and treatment success of thousands of people living with opioid addiction. And by helping prevent relapse, it could save lives. The approval of lofexidine is also a welcome example of the power of public-private collaborations in developing new treatments.

MIAMI — Lofexidine (Lucemyra, US Worldmeds), which has been in use in the United Kingdom for more than 20 years, is now
available in the United States. The drug is used in the management of symptoms of severe opioid withdrawal.
Dr Danesh Alam
In a double-blind, placebo-controlled, multicenter trial in opioid-dependent patients, lofexidine significantly improved opioid
withdrawal symptoms and significantly increased completion of a 7-day opioid discontinuation treatment program compared with
placebo.
“We desperately need something to address the opioid crisis, where we are losing about 100 Americans every day, with some
16 million on opioids,” Danesh Alam, MD, Northwestern Medicine Central Dupage Hospital, Winfield, Illinois, told Medscape
Medical News.
“Now we have a drug that actually enables us to achieve a rapid withdrawal from opioids. When we use lofexidine, we can
literally bring in someone using opioids, give them this drug, and they can immediately stop using opioids,” said Alam.
The study was presented at the American Society for Clinical Psychopharmacology (ASCP) 2018.
A Better Alternative
Currently, the standard of care for the treatment of opioid withdrawl is medication-assisted therapy with buprenorphine (multiple
brands), but many patients wish to stop using opioids completely, Alam said.
“Buprenorphine is essentially another opioid, albeit a designer opioid, but a number of patients object to clinicians saying that
the best evidence is to switch them over to buprenorphine and do buprenorphine for the rest of their life,” he said.
Lofexidine, a selective alpha-2-adrenergic agonist, acts on the central nervous system. Through its effect on the brain stem, it
reduces the symptoms of withdrawal to a point at which they become very tolerable.
“We found in our study that you could basically give patients the lofexidine and stop the opiate. In the majority of cases, the
withdrawal symptoms at that point were mild,” Alam said.
The researchers enrolled 602 men and women aged 18 years or older who sought treatment for dependence on short-acting
opioids. Most were men (71%); the mean age of the patients was 35 years (±11 years).
Most patients (83%) were dependent on heroin.
Participants were randomly assigned to receive placebo, lofexidine 0.6 mg qid (2.4 mg/day), or lofexidine 0.8 mg qid (3.2
mg/day) for 7 days after abrupt opioid discontinuation.
The study assessed the benefit of lofexidine with the Short Opiate Withdrawal Scale–Gossop (SOWS-G), a 10-item inventory of
common opioid withdrawal symptoms in which higher scores indicate worse symptoms; by the percentage of participants who
completed the study; and by use of the Clinical Opiate Withdrawal Scale (COWS), an 11-item inventory of opioid withdrawal
signs and symptoms in which higher scores indicate worse symptoms.

Scores on the SOWS-G were lower for patients treated with lofexidine at both doses compared to patients given placebo (-0.21
for lofexidine 2.4 mg, P = .02; and -0.26 for lofexidine 3.2 mg, P = .003). More patients in the lofexidine-treated group completed
the 7-day trial than in the placebo group (41.5% in the 2.4-mg group (odds ratio [OR], 1.85, P = .007), and 39.6% in the 3.2-mg
group (OR, 1.71; P = .02), vs 27.8% for placebo.
Mean COWS scores were significantly lower on days 1 to 5 for patients in the lofexidine groups than for patients who received
placebo (P < .01).
Good Timing
The most common side effects seen with lofexidine were hypotension, orthostatic hypotension, and bradycardia, but they
resulted in few study discontinuations.
The US debut of lofexidine comes at a crucial time. It was recently granted approval by the US Food and Drug Administration
(FDA), as reported by Medscape Medical News.
This approval came after 17 years of hard work on the part of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).