We have previously summarized studies on ketamine, which when given intravenously can bring about rapid-onset antidepressant effects. Ketamine is a full antagonist (or a blocker) of the glutamate NMDA receptors. Another drug currently in development may work in a related way.
At a recent scientific meeting, researcher Sheldon Preskorn showed that the compound GLYX-13, a partial agonist at the glycine binding site of the NMDA receptor (meaning it allows partial function of the glycine receptors that aid NMDA receptor function), exerts rapid antidepressant effects like the full antagonist ketamine when administered intravenously compared to placebo. GLYX-13 allows about 25% of the receptor activity of the full agonists glycine or D-serine, and thus might result in a 75% inhibition of NMDA receptor function.
GLYX-13 did not induce any psychotomimetic effects (like delusion or delirium), which are possible with the full NMDA antagonist ketamine. The effects of GLYX-13 appeared within 24 hours, lasted at least 6 days, but were gone by day 14.
Editor’s Note: Long-term effectiveness of ketamine for treatment of depression is unclear, but in addition to its potential psychotomimetic effects, it can also be abused. Whether GLYX-13 may be easier to use, longer-lasting, or safer for longer-term clinical effectiveness remains a key question.
We’ve written before about the rapid-onset antidepressant effects of ketamine, an anesthetic that is used in human and veterinary medicine. At lower doses, intravenous (IV) ketamine can induce antidepressant effects in both unipolar and bipolar depressed patients. When doses of 0.5mg/kg are infused over a period of 40 minutes, antidepressant effects appear within two hours but are short-lived, typically lasting only three to five days. Results have been consistent across studies at Yale University, the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and the National Institute of Mental Health. So far, clinical use has been limited by the short duration of the effects and the required presence of an anesthesiologist, which can be prohibitively expensive for many patients.
In a cover story in the January 2013 issue of Psychiatric Times, Arline Kaplan reviewed new findings about ketamine. The drug is a high-affinity, noncompetitive NMDA-glutamate receptor antagonist. It is not yet FDA-approved for use in depression.
According to a recent article by Murrough and Charney, response rates to ketamine are around 54% and the drug “appears to be effective at reducing the range of depressive symptoms, including sadness, anhedonia [the loss of ability to experience pleasure], low energy, impaired concentration, negative cognitions, and suicidal ideation.”
David Feifel, Director of the Neuropsychiatry and Behavioral Medicine Program at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD), instituted a program there in which patients can receive treatment with ketamine for clinical purposes (rather than for research) after signing detailed informed consent forms and being warned that the treatment is not yet approved for depression and that its effects may be temporary. The UCSD Medical Center’s Pharmacy and Therapeutics Committee, with the support of the anesthesiology department, agreed that nurses may administer the ketamine in an outpatient setting, making the procedure more affordable.
There is still the question of how to make ketamine’s effects last. Read more
Much has been written about the use of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants during pregnancy. In a review of 920,620 births in Denmark (1995 to 2008) that Jimenez-Solem published this year in the American Journal of Psychiatry, no link was found between any of the SSRIs used in any trimester and risk of stillbirth or neonatal mortality. The only exception was a possible association of three-trimester exposure to citalopram and neonatal mortality.
Editor’s Note: These new data may be of importance to women considering antidepressant continuation during pregnancy when there is a high risk for a depressive relapse. A maternal depressive episode (like other stressors such as anxiety or experiencing an earthquake) during pregnancy does convey adverse effects to the child, so appropriate evaluation of the risk/benefit ratio or staying on an antidepressant through a pregnancy is important.
In 2007, the FDA began labeling antidepressants with a warning that patients aged 18-24 were at risk for increased suicidality during the first weeks of treatment. New evidence shows antidepressants actually have beneficial effects on suicide risk in adults. A study of all published and unpublished data on the SSRI fluoxetine (Prozac) and the SNRI venlafaxine (Effexor) published in 2012 by Gibbons et al. in the Archives of General Psychiatry showed that these antidepressants substantially reduced suicidal thoughts and behavior in adults and produced no increase in suicidal thoughts or behavior in children and adolescents.
The protective effect on suicidality in adults was mediated by mood, i.e. the patients’ mood improved and they became less suicidal. Children’s mood also improved on the antidepressants, but their risk of suicidal ideation did not change.
Editor’s Note: These are important findings. When the FDA box warning on antidepressants and suicidal ideation appeared, antidepressant treatment of youth decreased without an accompanying increase in psychotherapy, and the actual suicide rate in youth increased.
We now know that childhood-onset depression carries a bigger risk for a poor outcome in adulthood than adult-onset illness. In parallel, greater numbers of depressions are associated with more impairment, disability, cognitive dysfunction, medical comorbidities, treatment resistances, and neurobiological abnormalities.
It is important to treat illness in young people in order to prevent these difficulties, and the suicide warning should not deter the use of antidepressants. Patients should be careful about suicidal ideation in the first several months after starting an antidepressant, as other data suggest that this is a time of slightly increased risk of suicidal thoughts in children and adolescents.
It is a common clinical assumption that early treatment of depression with antidepressants may be a risk factor for hastening the onset of subsequent bipolar disorder. Accumulating evidence indicates that this may not be the case. At a symposium at the 2012 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) researchers in the field shared the latest findings on antidepressant-induced manic symptoms in youth (AIMS), and there was a surprising consensus that antidepressants do not increase the risk of subsequent bipolar disorder onset when used for the treatment of childhood-onset depression.
Symposium speakers Kiki Chang, Melissa P. DelBello, and David Axelson all agreed that antidepressant treatment was not a risk factor for bipolar disorder.
DelBello shared data from a study in which antidepressant treatment was associated with a lower likelihood of mania during follow-up. Antidepressants were typically discontinued if the patient switched into manic-like symptoms or increased irritability or aggression. These symptoms tended to occur in children who were younger, who had a smaller volume of the amygdala, and in those who had a positive family history for bipolar disorder in first-degree relatives.
Axelson indicated that his data represented only a “bird’s-eye view,” but suggested that antidepressants do not cause or hasten the onset of bipolar disorder when used for treating depression in children. He also reported results from a naturalistic study in which stimulants also did not increase the risk of subsequent bipolarity.
Several of the presenters discussed how they would treat children with an early-onset depression when there is a family history of bipolar disorder. Read more
For several years, researchers have been exploring potential rapid-acting treatments for unipolar and bipolar depression. Intravenous ketamine has the best-replicated results so far. A slow infusion of ketamine (0.5mg/kg over 40 minutes) produces a rapid onset of antidepressant effects in only a few hours, but the improved mood lasts only 3-5 days.
Ketamine blocks the receptors of the main excitatory neurotransmitter in the central nervous system, glutamate. Glutamate is released from nerve endings and travels across the synapse to receptors on the next cell’s dendrites. There are multiple types of glutamate receptors at the dendrites, and ketamine blocks one called the NMDA receptor, which allows calcium ions to enter the cell.
Some downsides to ketamine are the brief duration of its effectiveness and its dissociative side effects. The search is on for other drugs that are free from these side effects and that could extend the duration of rapid-onset antidepressant effects.
At the 2012 meeting of the International Congress of Neuropsychopharmacology (CINP), Mike Quirk of the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca reviewed data on the intricacies of the glutamate NMDA receptor blockade and discussed the potential of AZD6765, an NMDA receptor blocker he and his colleagues have been researching.
The more the NMDA receptor is blocked, the more psychomimetic it becomes, meaning it produces hallucinations and delusions. For example, phencyclidine (PCP or angel dust) is a potent NMDA receptor blocker and psychosis inducer. For antidepressant purposes, a less complete or less persistent NMDA receptor blockade is desired. Read more
The role of the traditional antidepressants in the treatment of depression in bipolar illness remains controversial. Despite mounting evidence that they are not efficacious in the treatment of bipolar depression, they are still among the most widely used treatments for that condition. At the first biennial conference of the International Society for Bipolar Disorders held in Istanbul this past March, Mark A. Frye and Shigenobu Kanba chaired a symposium on antidepressant-induced mania and individualized treatment for bipolar depression.
This editor (Robert M. Post) discussed factors influencing antidepressants’ effects on patients with bipolar depression. In a recent meta-analysis, researchers Sidor and MacQueen reviewed data from studies encompassing 2373 patients with bipolar depression and found that antidepressants had no significant benefits over placebo on measures of response or remission. Pooled estimates for a thousand patients showed no increase in patients’ risk of switching into mania after treating with antidepressants. However, in a smaller sub-analysis, the risks of switching into mania following treatment with the older tricyclic antidepressants (43%) and venlafaxine (15%) was greater than the risk of switching after being treated with SSRIs (7%) or bupropion (5%).
There is a conundrum in the literature. While antidepressants don’t work very well in bipolar depression, there is a small subgroup of patients who, having responded well to antidepressants for two months, benefit more from continuing the antidepressant treatment than from discontinuing the drug. Continued treatment with adjunctive antidepressants (added to regular treatment with a mood stabilizer or an atypical antipsychotic) was associated with fewer relapses into depression over the next year when the antidepressants were continued compared to when they were discontinued. Lori Altshuler et al. have published two uncontrolled studies to this effect, Russell Joffe et al. have published one, and a more recent randomized study of this by Nassir Ghaemi replicated some of the results in patients who had non-rapid-cycling bipolar disorder. At the same time, the literature shows that there are number of risk factors for switching into hypomania during antidepressant treatment in bipolar depression.
Risk factors for switching into mania upon treatment with an antidepressant include: younger age, bipolar I compared to bipolar II, rapid cycling in the past year, mixed depression, use of older tricyclic antidepressants compared to newer second-generation antidepressants, use of noradrenergic active antidepressants compared to those that act on serotonin or dopamine, and a history of substance abuse. Read more
As we’ve written before, the popular media has sometimes questioned the efficacy of antidepressants for unipolar depression. A reanalysis of data from previous controlled trials of fluoxetine and venlafaxine that was recently published in the Archives of General Psychiatry provides new evidence that these drugs are significantly more efficacious than placebo in youth, adult, and geriatric populations with major depressive disorder.
The researchers concluded,
To our knowledge, this is the first research synthesis in this area to use complete longitudinal person-level data from a large set of published and unpublished studies. The results do not support previous findings that antidepressants show little benefit except for severe depression. The antidepressants fluoxetine and venlafaxine are efficacious for major depressive disorder in all age groups, although more so in youths and adults compared with geriatric patients. Baseline severity was not significantly related to degree of treatment advantage over placebo.
At a recent scientific meeting, Carlos Zarate of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) discussed a variety of rapid-onset antidepressant manipulations. The talk focused on intravenous (IV) administration of the NMDA receptor antagonist ketamine and the anticholinergic drug scopolamine.
Intravenous ketamine has been administered to approximately 1000 patients at research centers at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, Yale University, and at the NIMH in Bethesda. The results have been consistent; more than half of the patients experienced a rapid onset of antidepressant effect, usually within the first 2 hours. However, the effects of intravenous ketamine tend to disappear after 3 to 5 days.
In both unipolar and bipolar depressed patients whose illness has been highly resistant to multiple treatments, ketamine also brings about a rapid-onset decrease in suicidal ideation and intent. In some cases these positive effects have lasted a week or more. Thus intravenous ketamine could potentially be used at hospitals to treat suicidal emergencies.
New data indicate that intravenous scopolamine, a selective blocker of muscarinic cholinergic receptors that is used to help ward off seasickness, brings about onset of antidepressant effects in up to one day and sometimes in a matter of hours. As with ketamine, these effects occur in both unipolar and bipolar depressed patients.
Mechanisms of Action of Ketamine
Editor’s Note: New data from animal studies may be able to explain some of the mechanisms behind the rapid onset of antidepressant effects that occurs with ketamine. Ketamine causes increases in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is important for the development and health of neurons. In rodents, new synaptic proteins are created following intravenous administration of ketamine.
If animals are subjected to chronic unpredictable stress, dendritic spines (on which synapses are formed) appear to shrink. However, when ketamine is administered intravenously to these animals, not only is their behavior rapidly ameliorated, but the thin dendritic spines shift back to their more mature, mushroomed-shaped form within a few hours. (A slightly slower, less dramatic change in spines occurs with scopolamine.) A loss of dendritic volume has also been demonstrated in depressed people.
The data in animals are not only valuable for their potential application in clinical treatment and emergency situations involving suicidal ideation, but they also demonstrate a mechanism by which a single administration of intravenous ketamine or scopolamine is capable not only of reversing depressive behaviors in animals, but changing dendritic spine morphology. Given this development, it may be possible to identify other treatments that induce rapid-onset antidepressant effects using other parts of the same neurological pathways.
Other Rapid-Onset Approaches: TRH and Sleep Deprivation
Intravenous thyrotropin releasing hormone (TRH) also has rapid-onset antidepressant effects within 24 hours in depressed patients, but tolerance develops after repeated use.
Surprisingly, one night of complete sleep deprivation can also bring about dramatic onset of antidepressant effects the following day in approximately 50% of severely depressed patients.
In animal studies by Ron Duman and colleagues at Yale University, administration of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) either into a rodent’s blood or its brain has induced rapid-onset antidepressant-like effects.
Taken together, these data indicate that there are ways to bring about rapid improvement in depression, even if conventional antidepressants usually require 2 to 4 weeks to exert their maximum antidepressant effects. Read more
Researchers have long suspected a link between the use of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or S.S.R.I.’s, and [pulmonary hypertension in babies], but previous studies have been small and inconclusive (with results ranging from there being no link to a six times greater risk).
This research, based on 1.6 million births in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway or Sweden from 1996 to 2007, showed that among women using S.S.R.I.’s, the risk of persistent pulmonary hypertension for infants more than doubled (particularly for use late in pregnancy). It’s still a small risk: 3 in 1000 births, as opposed to 1.2 per 1000 births overall. But it’s a small risk of a serious problem.
Pulmonary hypertension, Dr. Juliette Madan, a pediatrician at the Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center explained, is diagnosed when an infant struggles to get enough oxygen into her lungs, and therefore into her bloodstream. The condition can be deadly, although Dr. Madan said that it’s usually treatable — with possible lifelong consequences.
But other research suggests that untreated depression during pregnancy has its own risks, including pre-term birth and low birth weight. Given that, how should a pregnant woman and her doctor weigh the competing risks?
See the New York Times for a discussion on how to balance mother’s health with babies’ health.