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Anesthetic Ketamine May Reduce Suicidal Thoughts In Depressed People

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Suicide is among the world's top three causes of death among people between 15 and 44 years old, but doctors face difficulty in treating depressed people with suicidal tendencies. Findings of a new study, however, offer hope of a drug that may potentially help save lives.

In a small study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry on Tuesday, May 10, researchers found that low doses of ketamine may cut tendencies for self-harm of people who suffer from long-standing depression.

Ketamine, which was first greenlighted by the FDA in 1970, is a powerful anesthetic that prevents people from feeling pain. It is used on before, during or after surgery to relieve pain and is also often used in veterinary medicine.

Study researcher Dawn Ionescu, from Harvard Medical School, and colleagues recruited 14 volunteers who have had suicidal thoughts for at least three months and suffered from persistent depression.

The participants were each administered intravenous ketamine per week over a period of 21 days with the researchers increasing the initial dosage after three sessions. After three weeks, researchers found that most of the participants experienced decreased suicidal thoughts.

Seven of the participants also ended up not having suicidal thoughts by the end of the study period, and two of these seven participants maintained remission from depression symptoms and suicidal thinking throughout the study's follow-up period of three months.

"In this preliminary study, repeated doses of open-label ketamine rapidly and robustly decreased suicidal ideation in pharmacologically treated outpatients with treatment-resistant depression with stable suicidal thoughts; this decrease was maintained for at least 3 months following the final ketamine infusion in 2 patients," Ionescu and colleagues wrote in their study.

The researchers likewise reported that no serious side effects were observed. Ionescu said that the most common of these side effects were increased blood pressure and heart rate as well as change in how people perceive their environment.

Some people, for instance, feel like their environment appears different or that parts of their body appear different. The researchers nonetheless said that the side effects are mild and only lasted between one to two hours.

Despite the promising results, Ionescu and colleagues acknowledge that the drug still poses many mysteries.

"We don't know yet how the drug works," Ionescu said. "We do not know if the doses of ketamine being used for depression and suicide will lead to addiction — more research is needed in this area."

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