A party drug known for its hallucinogenic properties may soon be used to treat depression. The drug, lanicemine, acts like ketamine – also known as Special K – without the psychosis-like side effects.
While previous studies have shown how single doses of lanicemine can relieve depression symptoms with few side effects, the latest findings showed how repeated doses of the drug can have long-lasting relief, New Scientist reports.
The study, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, involved giving 152 people with moderate to severe depression who had poor responses to other antidepressants lanicemine or a placebo. They were given the medication three times a week for three weeks. Those who took lanicemine were found to be less depressed than those who took the placebo.
"What this tells us is some of the concerns around ketamine might not be such big problems as originally thought," Mike Quirk of pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca told New Scientist. "There are ways around them with the right molecule."
Rather than targeting neurotransmitter systems for serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine like most antidepressants do, lanicemine targets the NMDA receptor for the neurotransmitter glutamate. The findings suggest that the glutamatergic system – a part of the nervous system responsible for information processing – may offer a new target area for a new class of antidepressant drugs, HealthCanal reports. That is, rather than boosting the neurotransmitter serotonin to improve neural signaling in the brain, ketamine and its mimics boost glutamate, which is believed to stimulate the regrowth of brain cells.
"This is the largest study to date evaluating the antidepressant effects of an NMDA receptor antagonist," Gerard Sanacora, lead author of the study and professor of psychiatry at Yale University, told Everyday Health.
But this isn’t the first study to examine the effects of ketamine or ketamine-mimic drugs. In May, Mount Sinai Hospital in New York published a study where ketamine was given to treatment-resistant depressed patients and found that there was dramatic improvement within 24 hours – unlike traditional antidepressants that can take weeks to kick in.
Pharmaceutical companies like Johnson & Johnson and Naurex are in the middle of clinical trials for ketamine mimics, according to The Verge. The former is set to launch a nasal spray and the latter is applying to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for approval by 2016.
So far, the latest study looks promising. "This could be revolutionary – the first new drug treatment for depression in 50 years," David Nutt from the Imperial College London, who was not involved in the study, said.