ATLANTA - A drug used to tranquilize animals and taken recreationally to achieve a dreamy, trance-like state, is proving effective in treating clinically depressed patients.
The drug is ketamine, commonly called "Special K" on the street. It can distort perceptions of sight and sound, and produce a feeling of floating or detachment.
But the drug also is seen as a highly effective, fast-acting therapy for severe depression, bipolar disorder and suicidal behavior. It boosts the communication between brain cells and increases critical proteins in an area of the brain that regulates complex thoughts, emotions and behaviors.
"Most of the patients I see, they've failed multiple anti-depressant therapy. Some have also failed electroconvulsive therapy. People exhaust conventional ways of treating depression and they are looking for an alternative experimental treatment," Dr. Andro Giorgadze said.
Giorgadze, a psychiatrist who founded a practice called Atlanta Center for ketamine Therapy, specializes in providing infusion therapy of small doses of ketamine to his patients. He has treated 500 people, who receive the drug intravenously in his office.
Richard, a patient who asked us to withhold his last name, has been seeing Giorgadze for several years since learning that he was conducting a study on ketamine for treatment of depression.
"It's not scary. It's not frightening. It's a sense of well being," Richard said.
A former business executive, Richard's bouts with depression sent him to the emergency room and mental health hospitals.
He pondered suicide when all other antidepressant medication he tried failed to work.
"I lost everything I had, everything I am, everything I was," Richard said.
Unlike Prozac and other antidepressants which take weeks to work, ketamine can lift depression in a matter of hours.
Richard said it possibly saved his life.
"It allows you to do the inner working that you need to do, that a lot of people who suffer from depression aren't able to do. You think things through more clearly, more objectively. That's the best way I can describe it. It sort of lifts the fog. You become more of a functioning person," Richard said.
Another patient, Patricia, had a similar experience. She had a life consuming depression that resisted antidepressant medication. As a result, she lost her job. She says ketamine helps her maintain a normal life and keep depression at bay.
"It just really gets rid of that feeling that you have, that you can't do anything, you can't deal with things. If I didn't' have these treatments, I really think I would have been in the hospital," she said.
Pharmaceutical companies are working to patent a ketamine like pill that would relieve depression without the psychotropic side effects. A separate study in mice concluded ketamine works by creating a byproduct when it breakdowns in the brain called a metabolite. The neuroscientist who led the study believes that metabolite is what produces the reaction that lifts feelings of depression.
He hopes that it can eventually be synthesized and widely available.
"That's the ultimate goal, to have medication that available orally and that's safe," Todd Gould of the University of Maryland School of Medicine said.
Because ketamine is not government approved for depression treatment, it's not covered by medical insurance. Treatments can run several hundred dollars. The effect of one treatment lasts several weeks, but patients can obtain the drug in a nasal form to use at home. Researchers believe some form of the drug will be on the prescription market in a few years.
In the meantime, Richard said he will continue his ketamine treatments on a regular basis to lift the fog of depression, bring clarity and hope.
"There's a reason to live. I feel like I have a purpose now," Richard said.
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