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A depression breakthrough

A hallucinatory party drug could point the way to the first new treatments for depression in a generation. Scientists have discovered that ketamine (“Special K”), which club-goers take for dream-like highs, also improves mood disorders by repairing damaged connections in the brain. What’s more, ketamine works within hours as opposed to weeks— even for people whose mood disorders have proved resistant to other drugs.

The breakthrough “represents maybe one of the biggest findings in the field over the last 50 years,” Yale University neurobiologist Ron Duman tells NPR.org.
Researchers involved in the study say the previous model of depression—based on the idea of “chemical imbalances” in the brain—may be wrong, and that depression may be the result of stress-induced damage to brain cells that control mood. Ketamine, they say, speeds the growth of new synapses—the connections between brain cells—and can quickly reverse the neuronal damage associated with depression.

The most popular class of depression drugs, SSRIs, don’t work for about a third of those struggling with depression. Ketamine’s negative side effects, including hallucinations, delirium, and kidney damage, make its widespread use as a depression treatment unlikely. But what the drug is revealing about how the brain works, Duman says, may lead to new, safer drugs, and “ultimately provide a much better way of treating depression.”

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