Ketamine Could Soon Be Used to Treat Depression

Around 1 million Australians suffer from depression at any one time.

The debilitating mental health condition is characterised by prolonged periods of ‘feeling low,’ a lack of energy and irritability, and a loss of interest in activities which are usually enjoyable. Chronic sufferers can remain bed ridden for prolonged periods of time and be unable to perform basic day-to-day activities.

While there are a range of medications available to treat the condition, the Black Dog Institute estimates that around a third of sufferers are unresponsive to anti-depressants.

The Institute hopes that a proposed new study will help sufferers in the future.

The Federal Government has recently announced a grant of $2 million to research the effectiveness of ketamine in treating depression.

Ketamine, also known as ‘Special K,’ is an anaesthetic and animal tranquiliser that is also used recreationally as a hallucinogenic drug. It can cause users to feel euphoric, experience feelings of physical detachment, confusion and clumsiness, as well as causing increased heart rate, slurred speech, anxiety and blurred vision.

It is currently classified as a Schedule 8 ‘drug of addiction’ under the NSW Poisons List – meaning that it can only be obtained with a valid prescription from a doctor. Using ketamine without a valid prescription can result in charges for drug possession, or for self-administration of prohibited drugs.

However, current research suggests that, used properly, ketamine could have positive short-term benefits for those who suffer from depression.

The Trial

Expected to commence in April 2016, the trial proposes to study the effects of ketamine on 200 participants who have been unresponsive to traditional anti-depressant medications. It will compare those effects against a control group who will be given a placebo.

The study will be headed by Professor Colleen Loo, a clinical and research psychiatrist based at St George Hospital and the Black Dog Institute, and will be run in joint partnership with the University of New South Wales.

It will aim to investigate whether ketamine is an effective and safe long-term treatment for depression. According to Professor Loo, previous studies suggest that a single treatment of the drug can ease the symptoms of depression in just a few hours, with the effects lasting up to several days.

Past Controversies

The use of ketamine as a treatment for depression has been the subject of controversy in the past, with an ABC investigation discovering that one business had been selling ‘take home kits’ containing up to 10 doses of ketamine.

Aura Medical, a commercial clinic based in Sydney and Melbourne, came under fire earlier this year after it was found to be selling the DIY treatment kits, and showing clients how to inject the drug without medical supervision. The clinic was selling the packages for up to $1,200 for a four week course of eight injections.

Those attending the clinic told the media that they were never informed that the substance was not approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration, and were not offered any other treatment options or professional support. Patients were often given the drug after a short consultation, and did not require confirmation from their GP.

After finishing the initial course, the clinic told users that they would require further courses as it would be dangerous to stop the treatment suddenly. The clinic ended up pocketing tens of thousands of dollars from vulnerable people who were desperate for a solution to their condition.

The Black Dog Institute is concerned that such schemes could undermine their research, and has issued a statement advising people not to attend similar ketamine clinics, as the long-term effects of ketamine are not yet known.

The Insitute has also expressed concerns that giving users free reign over the drug without professional support could increase the risk of self-harm or even suicide.

Speaking to the media, Professor Loo said:

‘It’s very important… [that] this kind of treatment is done in a very carefully monitored clinical context with experts in psychiatry and mental health. If people try to bypass that and prematurely use it clinically, and then maybe find people are having terrible side effects…that could derail the whole process of developing what could actually be a useful drug.’

If the drug is proven to be effective, it could ultimately be approved as an anti-depressant by the Therapeutic Goods Administration, with users taking the drug in close consultation with medical professionals.

Ugur Nedim About Ugur Nedim
Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Specialist Criminal Lawyer and Principal at Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Sydney’s Leading Firm of Criminal & Drug Defence Lawyers.

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