You may have heard of ketamine before, but chances are the use of ketamine to treat mental health issues is news to you. What started as an anesthetic and pain reliever is now thought to be the biggest breakthrough in depression treatment in decades. With ketamine being used as a novel depression treatment, you may find yourself wondering how ketamine helps mental health.
Ketamine tackles stress, anxiety, depression, and mood disorders in a unique and dynamic way. Working as an NMDA antagonist, ketamine essentially resets and refreshes the nerves in the brain, supporting the growth of new neural pathways that optimize healthy brain function.
By calming the brain’s main excitatory neurotransmitter, glutamate, ketamine enhances mental clarity and reduces mental chatter. This makes it easier to deal with life’s challenges and cope with mental health issues. Ketamine taps into the “default mode network”, the part of the brain which becomes active when we are thinking, daydreaming, reflecting on the past, and thinking about the future. When overactive, this network can be associated with stress and negative thought patterns. This can make it harder for people to cope with unexpected challenges, tragedies, and difficult life events.
Ketamine works on an area in the default mode network called the lateral habenula, which is associated with negative emotions and stress. When the lateral habenula becomes overloaded, it goes into a state called “burst mode,” triggering despair and lack of pleasure. Ketamine quickly elevates mood by blocking this bursting activity. According to Molecular Psychiatry, “Ketamine has also been shown to reverse the dendritic atrophy caused by chronic unpredictable stress exposure.” In other words, ketamine literally refreshes the brain.
In the hours following a treatment, ketamine triggers both synaptogenesis and neurogenesis. Neurogenesis is the process by which new neurons are formed in the brain and synaptogenesis is the formation of synapses between neurons in the nervous system. We refer to this phenomenon as “ketagenesis.”
In contrast with many conventional antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications, whose effects last only with the presence of the medication in your body, ketamine permanently rewires the connections in your brain, giving you the opportunity to develop new, positive thought patterns and behaviors so the healing benefits last well beyond your treatment. This is why it has shown to be so effective in patients with treatment-resistant depression and trauma.
Additionally, ketamine blocks pain receptors and reduces inflammation, assisting in its effectiveness in treating many types of mood disorders, depression, anxiety, PTSD, sleep problems, and pain.
In conclusion, ketamine works very differently from traditional antidepressants and mental health treatments. Because of its interactions with the lateral habenula and glutamate, it is able to treat mental health issues in a unique and incredibly powerful way.