A new, fast-acting antidepressant that works like the infamous club drug ketamine could elevate mood in just 24 hours, researchers say.
Though the drug is still in the early stages of development (to this point it has only been tested on animals), it shows promise for the treatment of a mental health disorder experienced by least 10 percent of American adults. It also solves a significant problem with antidepressants currently on the market: all approved depression drugs can take up to a month to work, meaning patients must wait before feeling any significant relief. In addition, there is no one-size-fits all antidepressant; finding the right drug for the right patient can sometimes be an issue of trial and error, and this weeks-long lag time for pharmaceutical benefit further prolongs this process. So an antidepressant that does not take so long to work could help people more quickly and streamline drug selection.
While depression is often a long-term illness, there are also shorter-term cases for which a month-long wait just doesn’t make sense. Sometimes doctors prescribe these patients a medication from a class of anti-anxiety drugs called benzodiazepines, such as Xanax, but this is far from ideal as they only treat some symptoms—such as constant worrying—and are highly addictive.
Also, there hasn’t been a “fundamentally different antidepressant medication for decades, perhaps even 30 years,” Jefferey Talbot, associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences at Roseman University of Health Sciences who is researching this new drug, tells Newsweek. “They’re good drugs and they’re relatively safe and well tolerated, but they’re surprisingly ineffective in a large number of patients.”
A new medication, Talbot explains, might be able to help those resistant to current therapies.
Talbot, who is collaborating with researchers at Duquesne University and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, says scientists worldwide have become increasingly interested in the idea of a fast-acting antidepressant. Some teams even tried treating some depression patients with ketamine—a veterinary anesthetic that became a prominent recreational drug during the 1990s rave scene (street name: “Special K”) because of its hallucinogenic properties.
“[Ketamine] provides anti-depressant relief in about 24 hours,” Talbot says, but “it has abuse potential and from a therapeutic standpoint, it doesn’t work well orally.” Talbot says this ketamine research ultimately tipped off researchers to the idea that drugs “that act like it from a mechanistic standpoint” could have a similar therapeutic effect.