Houston VA/BCM Study Confirms Ketamine's Effectiveness In Treating Depression

James Heilman, MD contributed this image of Midazolam to Wikipedia
Before it became a recreational drug on the club scene, ketamine was, and still is, a common anesthetic. Now, a follow-up study on the drug here in Houston shows that it could be a lifeline for depression patients who haven't responded well to other treatments.

Previous studies on ketamine infusions to treat depression used saline as a placebo for the control group. 

"And there's really not much of a psychological effect, there's really 'no' psychological effect to saline."

That's Dr. Sanjay Mathew of the Debakey VA Medical Center and Baylor College of Medicine. He's the lead author of the most recent study that used midazolam, a short-acting anesthetic which mimics many of the side effects of ketamine.  

"And so this study really provided a reasonable test of the hypothesis that ketamine is an anti-depressant above and beyond its psychological effects."

Dr. Mathew says two-thirds of the patients taking ketamine reported a 50 percent reduction in their depression symptoms over 24 hours. And many of the patients continued to benefit from seven days to four weeks after the initial infusion.

"What we think it does is it works on a system in the brain called the glutamate system, which has broad impact on multiple sort-of brain processes, like memory, mood, and emotion."

Some doctors are already prescribing ketamine for off-label use to treat depression. But Dr. Mathew says there are still several years of study ahead to figure the best dosage and time intervals for ketamine treatments.

Bio photo of David Pitman

David Pitman

Local Host, Morning Edition

The one question David hears most often isn't "What is it like to work for an NPR member station?" or "Have you ever met Terry Gross?" (he has)...