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Ketamine fights depression by acting like opioid, study says

A new study from Stanford researchers suggests that ketamine fights depression not only by impacting the glutamate system, but also engaging the opioid system. The discovery could have huge implications for plans to turn ketamine into the next big antidepressant.

In recent years, ketamine has turned from an illicit party drug to a focus of research that could turn it into the first new depression drug in over 30 years.

“When we say this is a new generation of drugs, we mean it. This drug is fundamentally different from all the other antidepressants that have been approved so far,” said Shawn Singh, VistaGen’s CEO.

The new study is the first the reveal how ketamine creates is unique effects in the brain.

Alan Schatzberg, a co-author on the paper, hopes that the new study will help drug makers streamline their efforts to create a new antidepressant.

“Before we did the study, I had some doubts about ketamine’s use for treating depression,” Schatzberg said. “Now I’ve seen the drug work, but I’ve also seen it doesn’t work the way people originally thought.”

Ultimately, the study highlights important questions about why and how ketamine fights depression in the brain. Hopefully, it will make the path forward easier for pharmaceutical companies.

“I think this paper points us in the direction that the [opioid system] is an area for potential interest,” Schatzberg said. “The question is, can we have a rational discussion about this in an era when there’s an opioid crisis?”

The findings were published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.


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