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Nowadays depression is often treated with drugs, but sometimes the effects of treatment can take many weeks to appear. So there’s an urgent need to find drugs that act more quickly. Scientists are now turning to ketamine, a drug usually used as an anaesthetic by vets, and notorious for being abused by clubbers, as it causes hallucinations and other effects.
Previous clinical trials have found that ketamine can help relieve depression within hours, but there are obviously significant side effects and issues with using the drug as a regular treatment. Now researchers in the US have discovered how ketamine exerts its effects on depressed patients, which could point towards new drugs with fewer dodgy effects.
Ketamine acts on proteins in the brain called NMDA receptors, blocking their action. Sungho Maeng and his team have found that the drug’s speedy antidepressant effects are actually due to the activity of another receptor, the AMPA receptor. Now that we know that the biological targets of ketamine are these two receptors, and particularly the AMPA receptor, it’s possible to start designing new drugs to target them effectively. But without seeing pink elephants along the way.