Learn more about the clinical use of ketamine for mood and pain disorders
Ketamine is a well-researched, dissociative anesthetic that was approved by the FDA in 1970. Since then, ketamine has been used extensively for pediatric and adult treatment in surgery, emergency departments, ambulances, trauma medicine, and war zones. It is a commonly used medication in veterinary medicine. The World Health Organization lists ketamine as one of the most essential medications due to its therapeutic effects and wide margin of safety.
Over the last decade, Yale University and the National Institutes of Health identified additional benefits of ketamine in the treatment of mood disorders and chronic pain. The use of ketamine for depression has been named “the biggest discovery in mental health in decades.”
So how does ketamine actually work?
Ketamine is known as an NMDA receptor antagonist. Many researchers are still searching for exactly how the medication can affect mood so rapidly and effectively, but what we do know is that ketamine works on glutamate, one of the most numerous neurotransmitters in the body. This increase in glutamate can cause a cascade effect of increased neural activity and communication in the brain. The areas of the brain which have shut down due to anxiety and depression are suddenly awakened. Ketamine causes neuroplasticity, or new neural growth, a “rewiring” of the brain believed to play a big part in the lasting anti-depressant effects.
A picture of a neuron.
The neuron to the right shows new dendritic formations, or new neural growth, within just 2 hours of receiving ketamine. Ketamine’s effect on the human brain – how it interacts with the Medial prefrontal cortex and Hippocampus in regard to chronic pain, for instance – is open to debate. We know that ketamine, its derivative esketamine, and ketamine-like drugs have been shown to reduce some of the symptoms associated with mental disorders like anxiety and depression, and the aforementioned chronic pain.
A CT scan of a human brain.
After ketamine treatments, the depressed brain is almost identical to the non-depressed picture as the new neural activity has awakened the depressed areas. The amygdala, that part of the brain which handles fear and emotion and is more active in people with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), may benefit from ketamine infusion therapy. The drug has been approved by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for the treatment of military veterans suffering from symptoms of PTSD. That part of the brain is also vital in how we deal with anxiety and depression, two mental health disorders whose symptoms have received much attention due to ketamine-related studies.