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Ketamine Depression Cure? 'Special K' Treats Symptoms Within Hours, Study Reports

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Dedicated club drug users may be on to something with 'Special K.'

A new study, conducted by researchers at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, shows that the experimental party drug, ketamine, can alleviate depression symptoms in just hours, according to a news release.

In the largest study ever conducted on ketamine's antidepressant capabilities, the drug, which is legally used as an anesthetic, was shown to quickly reduce depression in participants after just one 40-minute IV dose. Most medications available today can take days, if not weeks, to reduce symptoms.

The findings were presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association on Monday, but have yet to be subject to peer review.

A group of 72 patients, who previously failed to respond to other antidepressant medications, were randomly given the drug or a placebo. Within one day, 64 percent of the patients who had been given ketamine reported fewer depression symptoms, while only 28 percent of the placebo group reported reduced symptoms.

The drug shows potential for long-lasting results, too.

After one week, 46 percent of the ketamine-assigned patients still reported reduced depression symptoms after taking the ketamine, compared to 18 percent in the placebo group.

The first study suggesting that ketamine could quickly lift depression was published in 2000 by Dr. John Krystal, professor of psychiatry at Yale, but was not associated with this trial, TIME reported.

While it may be a quick-fix -- and a potential long-term solution -- for depression, there are several health risks associated with the hallucinogenic drug. Users who take a high enough dose of the drug, often snorted in powder form, are prone to falling into a "K-hole," described as an inescapable, often terrifying out-of-body experience.

However, the participants in the study used a small dose and most did not have extreme reactions.

“Nobody freaked out,” says James W. Murrough, assistant professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai. Murrough added that most patients described the experience of the infusion as being similar to having had a few drinks. About 10%, however, did have some dissociative effects. “One patient [reported] wondering whether time still existed during the infusion,” he told TIME.

The results are an exciting step toward rapid improvements in depression, but further studies are needed to test for the drug's safety and efficacy, the researchers say.

Dr. Dennis Charney, of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai stated in the press release that “major depression is one of the most prevalent and costly illnesses in the world, and yet currently available treatments fall far short of alleviating this burden.”

“There is an urgent need for new, fast-acting therapies, and ketamine shows important potential in filling that void,” he added.

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