Rethinking Healthcare

Street drugs can be modified against depression

Street drugs can be modified against depression

Posting in Cancer

It's the pathway that matters, the idea that we can attack the chemical problems of depression in a new way.

It's not the kind of experiment you want to see people running on themselves, but it may lead to the most important breakthrough against depression in decades.

(This happy hippie was photographed at a Rainbow Gathering in Russia, in 2005. Picture from Wikipedia.)

Ketamine was developed in the 1960s as an anesthetic for animals. It was used on one of my cats, some years ago, when she got her teeth cleaned. The same shot relieved pain as it knocked out kitty, which made for a better recovery.

Then the druggies found that, by snorting it at low doses, they got high. As a street drug, called "Special-K" or "Kit-Kat," it could make you feel like you were floating out of your body.

This hallucinogenic effect was scary, leading to paranoia or loss of memory with long-term use. It also led it to ketamine being classed as a Schedule III drug, like steroids or codeine.

Now pharmacologist (and LSD expert) George Aghajanian, along with former University of Texas Ph.D Ronald Duman at Yale, say they know how ketamine works, and they say this pathway can be used to develop an anti-depressant pill which delivers relief in just a few hours. Their research was published last week in Science.

Current anti-depressants, like Prozac and Zoloft, can take weeks to start working, and there is now some question as to whether they work at all. Talk therapy also takes a long time to have an effect. Meanwhile your life can spiral out of control. Suicide can be the result -- painless for you perhaps, painful for the rest of us.

Ketamine, the Yale researchers write, works on the pre-frontal cortex, the high-end brain, activating what is called the mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR), a chemical pathway that is also being looked at by anti-cancer researchers.

Within the pre-frontal cortex, they write, it provides "rapid reversal of stress or depression-mediated deficits" by restoring connections between neurons damaged by stress. Therapists can use this quick relief to then probe into the cause of the stress or depression. When that's obvious or short-term, such a pill could provide a cure.

Now before you go running to your ketamine dealer, this has only been tried on rats, and the aim is to create another chemical using the same pathway that would not have ketamine's side effects. It's the pathway that matters, the idea that we can attack the chemical problems of depression in a new way.

Getting back to Dr. Aghajanian's original research target, Franz Vollenweider, a Swiss researcher, wrote last week in Nature Neuroscience that low doses of LSD or psilocybin may also be useful in the treatment of depression. Their proof comes from brain scans, not rat studies, and is a follow-up to a 2005 Canadian study, which also looked at ketamine.

Both LSD and psylocybin, however, are Schedule I drugs, meaning they are thought to have no medical use. This hampers research into them in the U.S.

Still, it will always bring to some minds the story of Cary Grant, who took LSD therapeutically in the 1950s but later became a foe of the counter-culture. Grant was experimenting to find relief, as the hippies were, but he was doing it with a doctor beside him.

Hippies, with their long hair and other accoutrement, as well as the uncontrolled nature of their experiments, put a stop to all that by scaring our parents to death. Now that the hippies are aging out maybe the labs can get back to work and deliver us from mental depression.

What do you think?

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure