Ketamine has ‘remarkable’ effect in treating severe depression where orthodox treatments have failed, Oxford trial finds

The drug is due to be upgraded by the Government from Class C to B amid increasing concern over its physical and psychological effects

Ketamine, the illegal dance club drug, has successfully been used to treat NHS patients suffering from serious depression.

Infusions of ketamine given to patients in an Oxford trial had a rapid beneficial effect on those who were not responding to more orthodox treatments. Some had been suffering unremitting depression for many years despite various drugs and talking therapies.

Although many patients taking part in the trial at Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust relapsed within a day or two, almost 30 per cent showed improvements lasting at least three weeks.

In 15 per cent of cases, patients took more than two months to relapse and some benefited for eight months.

Psychiatrist Dr Rupert McShane, from Oxford University, said: “We’ve seen remarkable changes in people who’ve had severe depression for many years that no other treatment has touched. It’s very moving to witness.

“Patients often comment that the flow of their thinking seems suddenly freer. For some, even a brief experience of response helps them to realise that they can get better and this gives them hope.”

Ketamine, a horse tranquilliser, has become a popular recreational drug on the dance club scene. It is due to be upgraded by the Government from Class C to B amid increasing concern over its physical and psychological effects. There is evidence that users as young as 20 have had their bladders removed due to heavy consumption of the drug.

But the doses used in the patient trial were much lower than those on the street and side effects were minimal, even though the drug was injected into patients rather than swallowed.

Results from the first 28 patients treated with ketamine are reported in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. Either three or six infusions of up to 80mg of ketamine were administered during the three-week course of treatment.

The researchers conducted memory tests a few days later and patients reported their mood symptoms daily via text or email. None suffered memory or bladder problems.

A total of 400 infusions have now been given to 45 patients on the programme.

“Intravenous ketamine is an inexpensive drug which has a dramatic, but often short-term, effect in some patients whose lives are blighted by chronic severe depression,” said Dr McShane.

“We now need to build up clinical experience with ketamine in a small number of carefully monitored patients.

“By trying different infusion regimes and adding other licensed drugs, we hope to find simple ways to prolong its dramatic effect.”

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