Clinical Evidence May Explain the Mechanisms of Ketamine’s Rapid Acting Antidepressant Effects
At the 51st Annual Meeting of the National Institute of Mental Health’s New Clinical Drug Evaluation Unit (NCDEU) in 2011, C.G. Abdallah from SUNY Downstate Medical Center reported on a study of intravenous ketamine for treatment-resistant depression. Twelve medication-free participants aged 18-65 received 0.5mg/kg ketamine over 40 minutes. There was a rapid-onset antidepressant effect, as there has been in other studies of unipolar and bipolar depressed patients. In a subgroup of 4 patients examined with magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS), there were rapid increases in brain GABA followed shortly thereafter by increases in brain glutamate concentrations.
Editor’s note: The rapid increases in GABA and glutamate that occur after the administration of intravenous ketamine may help account for its therapeutic effects. Other studies have shown that brain GABA is low in depressed patients, so the rapid increase in GABA with ketamine administration could partly explain the antidepressant effects of the drug. The role of the glutamate increases remains to be further explored.
Neli and associates from Yale had reported that in animals, ketamine was able to rapidly alter synapse structure and function. In an animal model of depression, rodents are exposed to chronic and unpredictable stress and develop depressive-like behavior. The mature, mushroom-shaped spines on their dendrites (the parts of neurons that receive synapses and determine the neuron’s excitability) also lose their shape, becoming straighter and spikier like immature spines. Intravenous ketamine not only improves the animals’ behavior, but also increases the number of mushroom-shaped spines within a matter of hours, rapidly improving synaptic function. This effect of ketamine was dependent on a novel intracellular pathway involving the enzyme mTOR, which if blocked prevented the re-emergence of the mature spines.
In the brains of depressed humans studied at autopsy there is reduced neural volume in the frontal cortex, which could possibly be related to dendritic atrophy and associated changes in spine shape as it appears to be in rodents. The animal data suggest the remarkable possibility that intravenous ketamine’s rapid onset of antidepressant effects could also be associated with rapid improvement in the microanatomy of the brain.
The data on ketamine’s effects in animals and the new clinical data showing that GABA and glutamate increases occurred rapidly in depressed patients administered ketamine provide further insight into the potential mechanisms of ketamine’s effect.