This popular club drug has been shown to eliminate mental illness for weeks, but can it escape the stigma around it?
After the Columbine shooting in 1999, high schools across America were reeling from the possibility of such a tragedy happening on their grounds after Columbine failed to recognize that the two students responsible for the shooting as dangers to others. One such high school in New Jersey, where Rebecca Brachman attended, asked students to write ways that they thought this occurrence could be prevented and most students pointed to gun control. Brachman, despite how stigmatized the subject was at the time, went much deeper and identified something more complex: mental illness.
Fast forward to today and it makes sense that Brachman is now a neuroscientist and her latest studies have revolved around how existing drugs can be used to treat mental illness, leading to a huge discovery that could change everything we know about treatment.
In a recent TED Talk last year, Brachman spoke to an audience about the studies that her and a team at Columbia University as well as people around the globe have been working on. She and many other researchers understand that drugs that are produced to treat other illnesses actually have the ability to work on other illnesses but that the scientists who created it are often so focused on its one purpose that they don’t see the whole picture. Repurposing of drugs is actually how the first two antidepressant drugs were produced, which were originally meant to treat tuberculosis and allergies.
“We are in the middle of an epidemic of mood disorders like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD…. Depression has actually now surpassed HIV/AIDS, malaria, diabetes and war for the leading cause of disability worldwide. And also, like tuberculosis in the 1950’s, we don’t know what causes it. Once it’s developed, it’s chronic, lasts a lifetime, and there are no known cures,” said Brachman in her talk.
Though anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications are advertised and prescribed frequently, they are nowhere near guaranteed to work and can actually worsen symptoms for many patients. Even if they do work, they simply suppress symptoms by inhibiting or boosting production of certain hormones, but Brachman and many others wondered if there was a better solution.
In a series of trials on mice over the last few years, Brachman and a colleague conducted stress tests on mice with results that at first did not seem to make sense. Despite the mice having just been put through a purposefully stressful situation, they acted as though they were at ease and not at all bothered. When the researchers discovered that these were the same mice that had been injected with Calypsol, a drug traditionally used as an anesthetic before surgeries, just one week prior to this test, they wondered if it was this drug that was preventing the mice from feeling any further stress for weeks to come. After dozens of tests in their own lab and across the world, the researchers knew what they had come across: the first antidepressant drug since SSRIs were introduced more than 30 years ago.
This discovery was a huge deal for two reasons: the first is that the drug lasted for an unknown but definitively long period of time and the second is that it prevented the brain from absorbing and reacting to stressful situations at all rather than changing the hormones, which isn’t guaranteed to work. So Calypsol isn’t just an antidepressant drug, it actually works like a vaccine.
There are also problems that this drug is facing, however. Calypsol has another name, ketamine, which is known on the streets as Special K and is often used by party or club-goers. The negative stigma associated with the use of ketamine inherently prevents it from being accepted as a regularly-used drug to treat depression, despite the amazing effect it has on people with depression or PTSD.
“I think once we have treatments for diseases, or preventions for them, it really changes the conversation. Things are stigmatized in part when there’s nothing you can do about it. They’re also mythologized when there’s nothing you can do about it,” Brachman said of mental illnesses and the lack of treatments for them.
Ketamine also works because it is already an established drug that is FDA-approved, meaning it wouldn’t have to go through years of trials and approval processes just to be tested on humans and, hopefully, released onto the market. Watch Brachman talk about ketamine and the history of antidepressants in her TED Talk below.