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Nearly a decade ago, at the Connecticut Mental Health Center in New Haven, a very interesting discovery was made. Researchers John Krystal and Dennis Charney observed that ketamine – an anesthetic medication and popular party drug known as "Special K" – provided fast relief for symptoms of depression. Dr. Krystal is the head of Yale’s psychiatry department, and Dr. Charney is the current dean at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine.

At the time, however, they didn’t understand how ketamine worked to relieve symptoms. This has remained a mystery – until recently. The Yale University research review, co-authored by psychiatry professors Ronald Duman and George K. Aghajanian, explains how small doses of ketamine can benefit depression so quickly.

Chronic depression and stress wreak havoc on synapses in the brain. Synapses are the connective structures that allow brain cells to communicate with each other. When this communication process is disrupted, depressive symptoms may occur. When ketamine enters the system it stimulates the release of glutamate, one of the brain’s many neurotransmitters. This chemical, in turn, works to rapidly reverse the damage by helping the synapses rebuild themselves.

Current antidepressant drugs don’t target glutamate; they primarily impact other neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and norepinephrine. Although these medications help many people, approximately 1/3 of those who take them don’t experience any benefits. This is why understanding the ketamine – glutamate – synaptic regeneration connection is especially exciting. It could lead to the development of a new type of antidepressant medication – one that could potentially help millions of individuals who currently struggle with chronic depression.

Another important aspect of their findings is the speed at which ketamine provides symptom relief. Unlike current antidepressants, which typically take several weeks to reach therapeutic levels (and thus provide symptom relief), the beneficial effects of ketamine occur within just a few short hours. Imagine how amazing that would be for those who’ve battled depression for years!

Unfortunately, the benefits don’t last indefinitely. The scientists found that symptom relief lasted only 7 to 10 days. Increasing the dose could lead to the manifestation of psychosis, which is one of the many short-term side effects when the popular party drug is taken in large doses. However, scientists will continue studying the drug as well as possible alternatives that may provide a similar effect. Hopefully this research will lead to a safe, effective, fast-acting antidepressant.

Ketamine was developed 50 years ago. It’s a fast-acting dissociative drug used primarily by veterinarians to anesthetize animals just before surgery.

Unfortunately, this Schedule III controlled substance is also a popular drug of abuse. Since it quickly causes amnesia and can be put into someone’s drink without detection, ketamine is often used as a date rape drug. It’s also widely used at raves and clubs, due to the euphoric high it creates.

On the streets, ketamine is called a variety of names including "K", "Special K", cat valium, super acid, honey oil, ket, and kit kat.

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