Ketamine Being Used as Unapproved Treatment for Depression

The drug ketamine is being used in the United States as an unapproved treatment for depression and suicidal behavior, even though there is little evidence on long-term risks and benefits.

Ketamine was introduced decades ago as human and animal anesthetic, was used as a pain reliever on Vietnam battlefields, and became the club drug Special K, according to the Associated Press.

Now, a growing number of clinics across the U.S. claim that treatment with ketamine in IV, spray or pill form can provide instant relief for depression.

Despite the fact that the Food and Drug Administration has not approved ketamine for such use, patients are paying thousands of dollars for the often treatments often not covered by health insurance, the AP reported.

Ketamine has the potential to provide almost immediate if temporary relief from depression, according to Dr. Jennifer Vande Voort, a Mayo Clinic psychiatrist who has treated patients since early this year.

"We don't have a lot of things that provide that kind of effect. What I worry about is that it gets so hyped up," she told the AP.

Some studies suggest that ketamine is most effective and generally safe in giving short-term relief for patients who don't respond to antidepressants, or about one-third of the 300 million people with depression worldwide.

Ketamine has "truly has revolutionized the field," Dr. Gerard Sanacora, a Yale University psychiatrist, told the AP.

The drug has altered scientists' views on how depression affects the brain and showed that quick relief is possible, according to Sanacora, who has done research for or consulted with companies trying to develop ketamine-based drugs.

However, much more research is needed before ketamine might become a standard depression treatment, Sanacora noted.

Last year, he co-authored an American Psychiatric Association task force review of ketamine treatment for mood disorders. The task force concluded that while the drug may offer benefits, there are still "major gaps" in knowledge about its long-term effectiveness and safety, the AP reported.

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