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Scientists are getting closer to learning why ketamine helps depression

A new study reveals how the house party drug changes brain chemistry, and why it alleviates mental illness symptoms so quickly

In 2018, it seems like ketamine is everywhere – even Katie “Ketty” Hopkins is in on it. And perhaps there's good reason: scientists have found yet more evidence that suggests it could be the next big anti-depressant.

The powerful general anaesthetic was developed during the 60s, originally intended for animals and humans (before surgery), but researchers began trialling it as a treatment for PTSD in the 90s. Its reputation as a "wonder pill" for depression and trauma has only grown stronger since then: just last year, it was discovered to have a "remarkable" effect on clinically depressed patients – even (if not especially) the elderly.

Now, an article published in the journal Nature (International Journal of Science) has shone a light on how ketamine can balance out and positively affect chemicals in the brain that are said to cause mental illnesses. The article says this effect can pave the way for a new generation of mental illness treatments.

Compared to traditional antidepressants, which can take days before any improvement in mood, the speed that ketamine works at led scientists to think that it was working on a crucial element of brain chemistry that affects depression. In the new research, scientists say that ketamine shuts down the rapid "machine gun firing" of bad thoughts that comes from your lateral habenula – the "anti-reward centre" in your brain, which actively works against dopamine, seretonin, and all those other good things. This discovery could lead to the development of a whole new wave of ketamine-related anti-depressants that work specifically on the lateral habenula. 

While the treatment is currently available privately in the UK, it needs to be professionally administered, and is a last resort following the failure of other options. This is because of the fear patients could abuse it recreationally – aka, disappear into a K-hole, which you'll probably know is not a pretty sight. The drug can raise your heart rate, and make you confused, agitated, and disconnected from reality. It can make you feel sick, and cause damage to your short and long term memory, make you lose feeling in your body, damage your liver and blood, and – the most infamous side effect – make you lose control of your bladder. So however well it may work, like anything else, it comes with risks, and must be administered and controlled with care. 

Revisit our 2015 interview with an NYC doctor who has been prescribing ketamine since the 90s.