Ketamine: A Breakthrough in Depression Research?
Researchers are lining up behind an experimental drug treatment that reduces symptoms of depression within hours. Ketamine—an anesthetic also used as a party drug— has led to many new depression treatment clinics across the U.S. over the past five years. Researchers and doctors are calling it the biggest breakthrough in depression research in 30 years. Taylor Wizner reports.
Kathryn Way is a comedian living in Houston. She’s struggled with depression her entire life. Then, in her early twenties, she was sexually assaulted twice. Her depression got so bad that she couldn’t leave her home, and she developed obsessive suicidal thoughts. As a last resort, she checked out ketamine, which she had heard about from a friend.
Way 1: The treatment starts… it’s very very intense. You kind of go back and revisit traumatic events but you comfort yourself during them. I kind of am able to do that and access kind of like dark long halls in my brain and revisit things in a safe and controlled way, in a very comforting way. (0:22)
In the days after her first two treatments, she says she felt a Dopamine rush, kind of like first date jitters. After her first treatments, Way says only once has a suicidal thought crossed her mind.
Way 2: Other than that absolutely zero urges, not even self-harm. Not even really depressive thoughts. (0:13)
She’s had six treatments during November this year. And now she’ll have one treatment a month over the next four months. Each session costs more than 500 dollars. And she’s paying for it with donations from friends and family. They chipped in on a Go Fund Me page she set up to cover her treatment.
Way 3: I just am like wow who is this person that is laughing and happy and who can get out of bed and function and go to work and be productive? And I’m just kind of floored and really excited to get to know this new version of me. (00:17)
Dr. Kyle Lapidus, a psychiatrist, runs a Manhattan clinic called U.S. Ketamine. Since he opened over two years ago, he has given a few hundred patients intranasal ketamine treatments at his office on the Upper West Side. He picks patients similar to Way, who have tried a number of drug combinations before.
Lapidus 1: I think people are warranted in having some skepticism. I’ve also been very impressed by what I’ve seen. (00:07)
He says the majority of his patients who have the ketamine treatment say they no longer have their regular symptoms of depression.
Lapidus 2: A lot of people report drastic, especially after their first treatment, a drastic change—that they’ve not before experienced that. That they’re feeling a lot better. People said to me things like the ‘pain around my heart is gone.’ (00:12)
While success stories like these may seem unbelievable, they are the norm for Rebecca Brachman (BROCK-man). She’s a Research Scientist at Columbia’s Psychiatry Department. A 2014 Oxford study showed out of 28 patients with treatment-resistant depression, a third improved within a few days of the last ketamine injection. And the effects lasted anywhere from 25 days to eight months. Brockman says the studies and doctors’ findings concur.
Brachman 1: Doctors are very conservative so you can be somewhat confident that they are very confident if they are using it off-label especially considering its illicit history.
But there are still skeptics, like Dominic Sisti (CIS-tee), an Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He was concerned about the rising number of suspicious-seeming ketamine clinics that were opening in 2013. The following year, he penned an article cautioning against the drug. He wrote that patients might be desperate for the treatment, and that it might lead them to miss potential risks.
Sisti 1: I’m starting to sort of evolve on the question as more data come in. But at the same time I really do think that we need like a systematic set of studies that provide clinicians who are getting into this space with clear protocols and best practices.
Sisti says some pharmaceutical companies are experimenting with variations of the drug. But until one is developed, he said people seeking this treatment should do consumer research on the drug, and the nearby clinics.
Taylor Wizner, Columbia Radio News.