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Taiwan study confirms benefits of ketamine therapy for severe depression

11/30/2023 10:52 PM
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Ketamine is displayed at a police briefing about a drug raid, in Miaoli County in 2020. CNA file photo for illustrative purpose only
Ketamine is displayed at a police briefing about a drug raid, in Miaoli County in 2020. CNA file photo for illustrative purpose only

Taipei, Nov. 30 (CNA) A recent study has added to the body of research showing that small doses of ketamine can help reduce the risk of suicide in people with hard-to-treat depression, Taiwanese researchers said Thursday.

Su Tung-ping (蘇東平) a doctor at Cheng Hsin General Hospital's Department of Psychiatry and one of the study's authors, said at a press conference in Taipei that traditional antidepressants often only take full effect after 3-4 weeks, leaving a potentially dangerous "gap period" for people with severe symptoms.

Over the past few years, however, international research has shown that small doses of ketamine can effectively ease depression symptoms within hours, thus filling the gap before other medications take effect, he said.

To explore this further, Su said his hospital, along with teams at Taipei Veterans General Hospital and National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University, organized one of the first double-blind, randomized and placebo-controlled clinical trials on the topic in Asia.

In the study, 84 individuals with treatment-resistant depression and suicidal ideation were split into two groups, one of which was given an injection of 0.5 milligrams of ketamine for each kilogram of their body weight, while the other group was given midazolam, a sedative with no known impact on depression.

The results, which were based on patients' responses to a diagnostic questionnaire known as the Montgomery-Asberg Depression Rating Scale, or MADRS, showed that half of the group that received ketamine injections experienced a drop of up to 50 percent in their risk of suicidal behavior, according to Su.

In addition, around 20-25 percent of patients reported that their symptoms had eased, he said.

In terms of duration, ketamine treatment treated the effects of depression for between 10 and 14 days, and had anti-suicide effects for 5 to 7 days, Su said.

Psychiatrist Su Tung-Ping (right) is interview by reporters in Taipei Thursday. CNA photo Nov. 30, 2023
Psychiatrist Su Tung-Ping (right) is interview by reporters in Taipei Thursday. CNA photo Nov. 30, 2023

Su said that within the ketamine group, the therapy was generally more effective for patients whose symptoms had come on in the past 24 months, and who were taking 4 or fewer types of antidepressants. For those with a severe risk of suicide, however, the drug's effects only lasted around 5 days, he said.

For that reason, the study recommended that patients with severe suicide ideation receive injections 2-3 times per week to control their symptoms, Su said.

On the question of addiction, Su said the risk was extremely low since patients were only taking small doses of the drug for a short period.

The team's study was published in May in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology.

Under Taiwan's Narcotics Hazard Prevention Act, ketamine is listed as a Category 3 narcotic (out of four categories), with Category 1 being the most serious.

Possession of more than 5 grams of ketamine is punishable by up to 2 years imprisonment and a fine of up to NT$100,000 (US$3,196), the law states.

(By Tseng Yi-ning and Matthew Mazzetta)

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