As the number of people suffering from treatment-resistant depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) rises, some patients are turning to an unlikely medication for help: a hallucinogenic party drug called Ketamine.
Dr. David Feifel, a neuropsychiatrist with the University of California, San Diego, said he is getting remarkable results with a pioneering treatment using Ketamine, also known as Special K.
Long before it became known as a party drug, Ketamine was used as an anesthetic, listed as an essential medication for that purpose by the World Health Organization.
But for the last five years, Feifel has been injecting deeply depressed and suicidal patients with low doses of Ketamine at his clinic. Those in treatment say they are there to live or die.
Ross George, 23, took the very long trek from his home in Canada for a 30-minute trip on 20 milligrams of Ketamine. The dose is not enough to render him unconscious, but it is enough to make him hallucinate and temporarily clear his mind of suicidal thoughts.
George was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and borderline personality disorder. Three times in as many years, George attempted suicide.
“I put a plastic bag over my head and an elastic band to create a seal,” George said.
His most recent attempt led him to what some patients call the clinic of last resort. Before he sought out Feifel’s help, he said he wrote a suicide note and had a plan for how he was going to kill himself.
Another patient, Jon de Kerguelen, was diagnosed with OCD and depression as a teenager. He has tried most antidepressants on the market, he said, and none of them have worked.
But after just four Ketamine treatments in two months, de Kerguelen is a new man, he told NBC 7.
“All of the sudden my depression was just gone, and I felt like in my mind I could do anything. I felt like I was all knowing and enlightened,” de Kerguelen said.
According to Feifel, 65 percent of his patients respond positively to Ketamine treatments. The affect is almost immediate, unlike many popular antidepressants that take up to two weeks to start working.
“Brain cells will interact with other brain cells and spouting new connections. This happens rapidly within 24 hours,” Dr. Feifel said.
Typical antidepressants modulate neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin to help brain cells communicate. Ketamine modulates an often-overlooked neurotransmitter called glutamate, which stimulates the brain, the neuropsychiatrist said.
Ketamine may be known as a party drug but it’s not addictive, according to Feifel. It is not an FDA-approved treatment for depression but can be used "off label" because for decades, ketamine has been an FDA-approved for other uses.
“[Patients] will say to me, without any equivocation, was it not for Ketamine, they would not be here today,” Dr. Feifel said.
When he spoke with NBC 7, George was just coming out of his third Ketamine treatment.
“It's like you leave your body and gain a whole new perspective on your life, your fears, your worries and your anxieties,” George said.
Ketamine is not a cure. The effects last anywhere from two days to several months — a brief respite from suicidal feelings and a debilitated life.
The feeling is described in a word Feifel's patients often use.
“I have hope for the first time in my life, and hope, that's enough,” George said.
Feifel said 30 percent of his PTSD patients are responding to Ketamine treatments. He expects that number to rise with all the referrals he is getting from the VA Hospital.