Party Drugs for Depression!
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Party Drugs for Depression!


According to a recent study, researchers at the Washington University in St. Louis have found a use for nitrous oxide that extends beyond far its primary purpose as a party accessory for Phish concerts. Yup, they’ve concluded that the drug, also known as laughing gas, may be effective in the treatment of depression in patients whose symptoms don’t respond to standard therapies. They say it’s the first time the drug has been used in a controlled experiment to alleviate symptoms of depression. Is it really, though? I think it’s difficult to sustain a profound sense of sadness when you’re laughing your ass off after inhaling some nitrous.

Researchers happened upon the idea when another anesthetic/party drug with the same chemical properties was also found to alleviate depression in patients for whom traditional therapies would not work—ketamine, also known as Special K. In a study conducted at Yale in 2012, and replicated at the Mayo Clinic in 2013, scientists found that just small doses of ketamine proved to work almost immediately on severely depressed patients, lifting them out of their dark and pervasive funks.

“It’s surprising both that it works and how rapidly it has effects. It sometimes can work in hours to reduce depressive symptoms and suicidal ideation,” said study co-author Timothy Lineberry, M.D., a Mayo Clinic psychiatrist. “Our goal is to begin to determine how the drug can be administered safely in routine treatment.”

And therein lies the rub, the “safely in routine treatment” part. There appears to be a push back from some corners of the clinical community because ketamine treatments are now being offered by a number of outlets which may or may not be dispensing them properly, and the drug also has troubling side effects, mostly in the form of mild psychosis or at least “brief and limited hallucinations,” according to the Mayo Clinic study. Which, as those of us who have taken strong hallucinogenics can tell you, can be a problem.

Which is what makes the news about the laughing gas treatments so encouraging for those suffering from depression.

Like ketamine, nitrous oxide is an NMDA receptor antagonist, a class of anesthetics that induce something called dissociative anesthesia, which allows doctors and dentists to perform pain free procedures, but also produces euphoric or hallucinogenic results, which makes them pretty appealing party drugs. Researchers hypothesized that the same results determined by the ketamine studies might be attainable by using nitrous, and did a pilot study that administered the gas to 20 patients who had treatment-resistant clinical depression, first giving them a gas mixture that was half oxygen and half nitrous oxide—just like a trip to the dentist—and then a placebo.

The results were pretty impressive, as researchers found that two-thirds experienced an improvement in symptoms after receiving the nitrous oxide. This led researchers to conclude that the trial demonstrated that “nitrous oxide has rapid and marked antidepressant effects in patients with treatment-resistant depression.” And because laughing gas is inhaled rather than given intravenously and also has fewer side effects, it’s a reason for optimism for both the researchers and people suffering with depression.

The fact that it works so quickly is also reason to celebrate. Anyone who has ever taken anti-depressants like Prozac, Zoloft or Lexapro knows the feeling of waiting for them to kick in and start working (not to mention therapy, where the wait time is even longer).

“If our findings can be replicated, a fast-acting drug like this might be particularly useful in patients with severe depression who may be at risk for suicide and who need help right away,” said co-investigator Charles F. Zorumski, MD, head of the Department of Psychiatry and director of the Taylor Family Institute in a release. “Or perhaps the drug could be used to relieve symptoms temporarily until more conventional treatments begin to work.”

The best line about the study came from one of the researchers, principal investigator Peter Nagele, MD, who observed, “It’s kind of surprising that no one ever thought about using a drug that makes people laugh as a treatment for patients whose main symptom is that they’re so very sad,” Nagele said.

My feeling exactly.

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About Author

Johnny Plankton is the pseudonym for a freelance business and comedy writer/editor (and recovering alcoholic) who lives in Boston. He is also a grateful member of America’s largest alcohol recovery “cult” as well as Al-Anon.