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Why ketamine should be used cautiously to treat depression

A new study suggests that while there are potential benefits, ketamine's use should not become widespread

A new study suggests that ketamine's use should not become widespread.
A new study suggests that ketamine's use should not become widespread. (Pixabay)

Earlier this year, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that a low-cost version of ketamine, an anaesthetic, showed promise for treatment-resistant depression. Now a new study suggests that while there are potential benefits, its use should not become widespread.

The new study, by researchers from the University of Otago, examined the use of ketamine as a treatment for depression in New Zealand. Previous studies have indicated ketamine offers short-term improvement, but it could lead to high relapse rates and potential misuse. It’s important to ensure patients are carefully selected, closely monitored and provided good support structures, according to Neuroscience News.

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The researchers said that greater access to ketamine to manage treatment-resistant depression is beneficial, but does not support a “large-scale rapid increase” in ketamine use, according to the university’s press statement. “Additionally, there are concerns about the abuse potential of ketamine and other adverse factors including bladder issues and possible memory side effects,” Dr Ben Beaglehole, associate professor at the University of Otago, said in the statement.

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists recommends restricting the use of ketamine to treatment-resistant depression and ensuring that ketamine is used only when clinicians are familiar with the drug and support structures are in place, according to the statement.

When administered intravenously, ketamine has been found at least as effective as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), which is currently one of the quickest and most effective therapies for patients with treatment-resistant. This is also an important finding because some patients are uncomfortable with ECT’s potential side effects, such as temporary memory loss, muscle pain or weakness, as reported by The New York Times.

However, as the researchers from the University of Otago pointed out, ketamine should be used cautiously. Previous studies, such as the 2020 one by the University of Cambridge showed that high doses of ketamine could temporarily switch off the brain, according to Science Daily. The measurements of brain waves showed that they can cause complete oblivion. The researchers also pointed out that other than its anaesthetic actions, little is known about its effects on brain function, which is concerning.

Also read: The link between ultra-processed food and depression

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