Mass General researchers find ketamine may reduce suicidal thoughts in depressed patients

Repeated low doses of the anesthetic ketamine may quickly reduce suicidal thoughts in depressed patients, according to a new study by researchers at Mass General Hospital.

Ketamine, first approved as an anesthetic by the FDA in 1970, became a popular hallucinogenic club drug before a 2006 study linked its use to rapidly reducing symptoms of depression, according to NPR.

The new study, published Tuesday in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, found intravenous doses of the drug, also known as Special K, reduced, and eliminated for some, suicidal thoughts in patients with treatment-resistant depression.

Dr. Dawn Ionescu, lead author of the study, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and part of the Depression Clinical Research Program at MGH, said in a statement that while previous studies have shown ketamine can reduce symptoms of depression quickly, many have not included patients currently experiencing suicidal thinking.

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Participants in the MGH study all had been experiencing suicidal thoughts for at least the previous three months.

“We only studied intravenous ketamine, but this result opens the possibility for studying oral and intranasal doses, which may ease administration for patients in suicidal crises,” she said.

Ionescu said one limitation to the study was that the patients knew they were receiving ketamine, though she and her colleagues are now working on a placebo-controlled study.

“Looking towards the future, studies that aim to understand the mechanism by which ketamine and its metabolites work for people with suicidal thinking and depression may help us discover areas of the brain to target with new, even better therapeutic drugs,” she said.

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