The 1960s saw the first glimpses of the drug ketamine which was synthesized as a painkiller and anesthetic. Fast-forward a few decades and ketamine was taken out of the medical scene and it became a popular club drug. In more recent years, it has been thrust back in to the medical space but used in an innovative way.
Research discovered that ketamine can rapidly reduce the symptoms of depression, chronic pain, migraines and some symptoms of PTSD. This is especially true for people who are resistant to traditional drug therapies which represents a powerful opportunity for people to manage their mental health challenges.
The excitement over the fast acting nature of ketamine is still buzzing, however researchers have put themselves to the test to explain how the drug actually works. As a result, many new studies are being conducted and the results have identified several ways that ketamine affects the brain.
Researchers believe ketamine is so effective because it targets a different neurotransmitter from traditional antidepressants. ketamine targets glutamate which produces and balances Gamma Aminobutyric Acid (GABA), a calming neurotransmitter. Overactive glutamate receptor genes can cause imbalances with GABA creating changes to mental health. For example, a depletion of GABA can result in depression.
Other studies have found that ketamine prompts the growth of new connections between nerve cells in the brain that relate to mood and emotion. Individuals given ketamine showed an increase in brain activity associated with the regrowth of neurons in areas of the brain linked to depression.
In individuals with depression, the lateral habenula tends to over fire causing an overwhelming amount of negative thoughts and feelings. This area of the brain is central to emotional processing and is known as the brain’s disappointment center. Studies have shown that ketamine targets this area and may serve to reset it thus easing the symptoms of depression and restoring a more normal processing of disappointment.
Most recently regarding the research around ketamine, researchers have made a fascinating discovery. When ketamine is in the bloodstream, it shuts off communication between the brain and body which slows down the function of the nervous system. By doing this, it essentially shuts down the areas of the brain which are associated with depression. When the ketamine leaves the system, those areas are turned on again, resetting them, so they function more smoothly.
This is an exciting time as focus has shifted towards this new and innovative treatment. Researchers will continue to study the effects of ketamine in order to understand how it works with the brain to help reduce the symptoms of depression and other mental health issues.
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