The club drug known as ketamine has been shown to have a rapid positive effect on an area of the brain associated with depression. Scientists who made the discovery are hopeful that this could signal new treatments for depression.
Ketamine, sometimes referred to as "Special K" or "Vitamin K" gained popularity in the club scene during the 1980s when it was discovered that it produces a dream-like state and hallucinations if taken in sufficient quantity. Its versatility as a drug means it can be smoked, injected, dissolved in drinks or injected. The therapeutic use of ketamine is as a tranquilizer, most often with animals, and mainly with horses. Ketamine is also approved for human use and has been used as a battlefield anesthetic.
The author of the study, Professor Bill Deakin, heads the Neuroscience Research in the Division of Psychiatry at the University of Manchester, U.K. Deakin and his team discovered that ketamine has a restorative function to an area of the brain known as the orbifrontal cortex, which is overactive in depressed people. This area of the brain is thought to be associated with emotions like fear, dread, guilt and anxiety as well as with physical reactions such as a racing heart.
The study involved injecting 33 healthy volunteers with ketamine and simultaneously scanning the brain to monitor the effects. Deakin said he was surprised to see how quickly the drug affected the orbifrontal cortex. Compared with prozac that can take at least a month to have any positive effects, previous research has shown that ketamine can have positive effects in just 24 hours.
Deakin and his colleagues were actually expecting to see ketamine affecting areas of the brain associated with psychosis. "There was some activity there but more striking was the switching off of the depression center," Deakin said.