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An illicit recreational drug used in the party and rave scene is now being tested in clinical trials across Toronto as a new and promising treatment for depression.
Ketamine hydrochloride, also known by its street names K, special K and vitamin K, is an anesthetic used in both human and veterinary medicine. It is also a popular recreational drug in North America, often used for its ability to disassociate the user from reality through its analgesic and psychedelic effects. However, in recent studies, doctors have been researching the effects of nasal and infusion methods on individuals with depression.
Dr. Roger McIntyre, director at the Canadian Rapid Treatment Centre of Excellence, opened one of the first clinics in Canada outside of the clinical trials to offer this treatment to patients.
“We believe that there are some mechanisms that are relevant to ketamine efficacy that are engaged soon after the treatment is administered, within minutes of administration,” McIntyre said. “Other mechanisms may be engaged after multiple infusions, or multiple doses.”
This form of treatment is used only on those who have not responded to at least two cycles of conventional treatments, McIntyre said. These treatments include antidepressant medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and cognitive behavioural therapy. Ketamine infusions have been viewed as extremely effective because of their rapid results. Treatments have shown the disappearance of symptoms of depression in an accelerated timeline and also reduced thoughts of suicide, McIntyre said.
The recreational use of ketamine first rose to popularity in the 1960s and it is still being used in the party scene today. However, recreational use can be dangerous due to its addictive properties. Ketamine can also cause toxicity and safety concerns on the body when overused, and in dense doses can affect organs such as the brain and kidneys.
Chris Davidson, a pseudonym he prefers because of the sensitivity of the topic, is a recreational and occasional user of ketamine. He is most familiar with the drug in its powdered form that can be administered nasally.
“The best setting for using ketamine is at home where you can experience the drug at its fullest. It makes you feel disassociated with reality and gives some form of afterglow the next day,” Davidson said.
McIntyre said that when being used to treat depression, ketamine is given in lower doses than when it is used in anesthesia or as a party drug.
Dr. Myriam Mongrain, a psychology professor at York University, said some individuals use recreational drugs to escape and “have a break” from their symptoms of depression. This means that doctors need to pay special attention to individuals who show signs of self-medication. She said that there are many ways to treat mental illness and no one simple method works for everyone.
Although the ketamine used to treat depression is not addictive due to its low dosage, McIntyre said we should always approach medicine as potentially harmful, while keeping our eyes open for positive changes.