Could this injectable drug unlock the darkness of depression?

Infusions of ketamine being used off label

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – Major depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States, but experts think they may have found a fix.

For those who don't respond to antidepressants and other, more drastic therapies, there is a promising, yet controversial, drug therapy they can consider.

"We've been using it successfully in patients for quite some time with very positive results," Dr. Raul Cruz, with Ketamine Health Centers said.

Dr. Marc Ettensohn, of Actify Neurotherapies, said he also offers infusions of ketamine to people suffering from severe depression. 

"This has been around since the 1960's as a safe and effective anesthesia medication," Ettensohn said.

Brian Ehlers and Nicole Winkler said they both turned to the infusions after suffering from depression for decades.

"It sucks all the good things away from you," Ehlers said. "It takes away tomorrow and without tomorrow, life isn't really worth living is it?"

Winkler said she felt the same about the condition, and was ready to see the light in life again.

"With depression, everything is dim. Things you love hold no value anymore and you physically manifest the stress you feel," she said.

Ehlers and Winkler are among the 30 percent of Americans who do not respond to conventional treatment therapies for depression.

Winkler said she had a horrible experience trying traditional treatment methods and never found anything that worked. But she said ketamine has.

"I felt it was worth the risk and I'm glad I did it because it changed everything from day one of the treatment," Winkler said.

Ehlers was on the verge of getting electroshock therapy when he learned about ketamine.

"I was without any further recourse, I wouldn't be here, I would have committed suicide," Ehlers said.

Ketamine is known by some as the psychedelic club drug called "Special K."

"It gets to the point inside of you where you know there's just nowhere to go," Ehlers said.

Cruz said it's unfortunate that some people abuse drugs that are medically useful, but that he doesn't think there's anything that can be done to prevent that.

For its use in the treatment of depression, Ettensohn said there hasn't been a euphoric effect.

"We are using extremely low doses, sub-anesthetic doses," Ettensohn said. 

Ehlers did describe the experience, though, as a slight "ketamine high" that lasts about 30 to 40 minutes.

Memorial Healthcare toxicologist Alberto Augsten warned that, if used on the wrong patient, the drug could cause serious side effects.

"For instance, someone that's predisposed to psychosis or schizophrenia, ketamine will make them even more psychotic," Augsten said.

Ketamine is not approved for the treatment of depression, meaning patients who wish to use the drug have to pay out of pocket, and the treatments can cost up to thousands of dollars, depending on how often patients receive them.

"Some patients will come back as frequent as once every month, others will come back less than once a year," Ettensohn said.

The benefits are also not permanent, experts said.

Two major pharmaceutical companies are now working to market new medicines inspired by ketamine.

A nasal spray version of the drug could be hit the market by this time next year. 

If you or anyone you know suffering from depression might be suicidal, here's how to get help.