Researchers are closing in on the precise mechanism that makes ketamine so effective for the treatment of depression, anxiety, PTSD and other psychiatric disorders. Since the antidepressant effects of ketamine were discovered in the 1990s, researchers have performed countless studies, each of them ultimately supporting the fact that ketamine is one of the most effective depression treatments available today.

We know that ketamine effectively alleviates symptoms in up to 70% of patients.

We know that ketamine works quickly, oftentimes within 1-2 hours of an infusion.

And we know that ketamine works in treatment-resistant patients, who have tried everything else to no avail.

But we don’t know why ketamine is so effective.

Traditional antidepressants, known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), work to increase serotonin levels in the brain. Ketamine, however, was initially believed to work on an entirely different network of neurotransmitters: the glutamate system. Early studies showed that ketamine blocked glutamate receptors…but researchers found that other glutamate-receptor blockers had no effect on depression whatsoever.

There had to be more to it, so researchers continued to dig deeper.

In 2018, a team of researchers from the Stanford University School of Medicine published a study in the American Journal of Psychiatry highlighting the discovery that ketamine activates opioid receptors in the brain, leading to a rapid reduction of depressive symptoms. Another step closer to understanding how ketamine for depression works, but still not the whole picture…

Now, a new study published in Translational Psychiatry shows some surprising news about how ketamine works: by increasing serotonin receptors in the brain. In this study, 70% of participants—all of whom had been diagnosed with treatment-resistant major depressive disorder, but were otherwise healthy—responded positively to ketamine infusions. PET scans of their brains showed an increase in a specific type of serotonin receptor.

Slowly but surely, researchers are piecing together the complicated and nuanced nature of how ketamine works to treat depression. It’s important to note that, even though the exact mechanism of how ketamine works isn’t totally understood, we do know without a fraction of doubt that ketamine works, has minimal side effects, and is safe. Ketamine has been in use as an FDA-approved anesthetic and analgesic medication since the 1970s, and is listed as an essential medication by the World Health Organization.

If you or a loved one are suffering from severe, treatment-resistant forms of depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar disorder or postpartum depression, ketamine infusions may be the solution you’ve been looking for. Our integrative medicine clinic in Sand Diego can help determine if you are a candidate for ketamine infusions. Contact us using the brief form below to learn more, ask questions, express concerns and take the first steps towards a happier, healthier life. 

About the Author

Kimberly Sandberg Aloha Integrative Health
Kim Sandberg is the owner and founder of Aloha Integrative Health and a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist. She has two advanced degrees: a Masters of Science in Nursing as a Nurse Anesthetist and a Doctor of Nursing Practice. She has worked in a variety of settings, though the biggest impact on Kim and her work came from her 28 years of service in the Navy Reserve.

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