The ’90s Club Drug That Could Prevent Suicide

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Extra special. Ketamine, also known as “Special K,” causes hallucinations, out-of-body experiences, and a general sense of "Wha?" when swallowed or snorted recreationally. (It’s still around, but was bigger back in the ’90s.) But it could also help people with the most serious forms of depression find relief and resist suicidal temptations, shows a very small pilot study from Australia.

The researchers injected four people with varying amounts of either ketamine or a placebo. (All four of the study participants had been diagnosed with major depressive disorder.) Three of the four saw their depression symptoms lift by more than 50 percent for a stretch of 24 to 48 hours, according to the study data.

Unfortunately, all of the patients fully relapsed within a week. So why does study coauthor Colleen Loo, M.D., of the University of New South Wales, call the drug a “game-changer”? Normal depression meds take up to eight weeks to kick in, which may be too late for sufferers who are suicidal. Because ketamine works almost instantaneously and appears to last for a couple days, it could be a lifesaver for those considering suicide, Loo says.

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It’s not totally clear how the drug lifts the clouds. But nerve cells in some areas of the brain shrink or collapse among people with severe depression, and ketamine appears to stimulate the growth of new nerve cell connections, Loo says.

There are definite drawbacks: The people in the study suffered from psychotic symptoms like hallucinations and “altered perception” when the ketamine was injected in a rapid, two-minute dose, the study authors say. It can also mess with your heart rate and blood pressure. (So don’t ever try to take it or administer it on your own, Loo warns.) 

Apart from demonstrating the drug’s effectiveness, the Aussie experiment revealed important information about how ketamine could be administered (dose amount, and method). And that information could help Loo and other researchers possibly create therapies that feature the drug in the future, she explains.

“I think we are a little way off,” Loo says, suggesting a rough timeline of a few years for the development of a treatment program. But she says she eventually sees ketamine being used either on its own or as a fast-acting helper to be taken with other anti-depressives. For now, if you're struggling with depression (or think you may be), talk to your doc. The best treatments vary depending on the person—and being able to talk out options will better help you combat the issues quicker.

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