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Research points to new depression treatment

Millions of Americans suffer from depression. In some people, symptoms are so severe that they are unable to work, instead receiving Social Security Disability payments for their illness. All of that might change for some patients who are severely depressed due to a controversial new treatment that has allowed many people to get back to their lives.

The treatment involves the administration of ketamine, or Special K, as it is known in the club scene.

The substance, which is used as a sedative, is showing promise in the treatment of acute symptoms of depression, specifically among those who are suicidal. Ketamine is a hallucinogen that is commonly used as a horse tranquilizer, though it was popular as an anesthetic during the Vietnam War as well.

Traditional medical interventions do not work for about one-third of patients, and physicians have struggled to find an alternative solution for those people. Physicians say they are looking to their industry's predecessors, who were investigating hallucinogens as treatments for mental illness as early as the 1950s and 1960s. That testing stopped, however, when hallucinogens became available on the open market, where they were rampantly abused.

Experts say a medical intervention does not exist to address acute suicidal tendencies, which constitutes as a medical emergency. Physicians have begun investigating ketamine usage in depressed patients worldwide, especially among those who experience strong urges toward suicide.

Preliminary testing in animals suggests that the drug promotes the growth of nerve cells in the brain. Those cells are the foundation for learning and memory. Scientists believe that long-term usage may benefit severely depressed individuals by stimulating this same kind of growth.

Patients describe incredible results from the early tests, indicating that decades-long struggles with depression have finally come to an end. Although further testing will have to be performed to guarantee the safety of ketamine for this application, pharmaceutical companies appear hopeful that a breakthrough for hard-to-treat depression is on the way.

Source: Bloomberg News, "Special K for depression renews hope in hallucinogens" Jason Gale, July 9, 2012

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