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Ketamine: the Legal Psychedelic That’s Changing Mental Health Treatment

A medication used for decades in medical settings as an sedative and dissociative agent, ketamine is experiencing a rebirth as a revolutionary treatment for depression and other hard to treat mental illnesses. Despite its notorious reputation as a party drug and hallucinogen, ketamine possesses powerful therapeutic potential when used in controlled settings.

Despite having a distinct chemical composition compared to other hallucinogens (e.g. psilocybin, DMT, LSD), therapeutic benefit remains is similar.

From Anesthetic to Promising Antidepressant

First synthesized in 1962 by chemist Calvin Stevens, ketamine was initially developed as an alternative to phencyclidine (PCP). At the time, PCP which was a commonly used anesthetic but came with severe psychological side effects. Ketamine was introduced for human use in 1970 and quickly became a popular anesthetic in surgical and battlefield settings due to its rapid onset and short duration of action.

Due to it’s dissociative effects, ketamine hit the club scene as a recreational drug in the 1990s. In recent years, evidence of it’s benefits for treating a variety of mental health disorders has emerged making it the newest off-label therapy for depression and anxiety.

How Does Ketamine Impact the Brain

Ketamine works by blocking N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors in the brain, which are involved in pain perception, learning, and memory. This is what  produces a dissociative, euphoric, and anesthetic effect. It is also thought to increase the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, which are associated with mood regulation hence its proposed use in the treatment of mental illness.

Ketamine can be administered intravenously, intramuscularly, and nasally (see Spravato), all forms with a rapid onset of action and whose effects are typically felt within minutes lasting between 30 minutes to an hour depending on the dose.

What are the Benefits of Ketamine?

Ketamine has been used as an anesthetic in medical settings for decades. It is also increasingly being used to treat a range of conditions, including chronic pain, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In low doses, ketamine has been shown to have rapid antidepressant effects, making it a promising treatment for treatment-resistant depression.

Ketamine is also being studied for its potential use in the treatment of other psychiatric disorders, such as bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). However, more research is needed to determine its effectiveness and safety for these conditions.