Research shows ketamine can be a life-saver in the fight against depression

The World Health Organization estimates that by the year 2030, depression will have the largest global burden of disease. One in six Canadians are diagnosed with depression at some point in their lives and up to one third of them will not respond to existing treatments. Depression that does not respond to at least two different antidepressant strategies is considered treatment-resistant. 

Dr. Pierre Blier and Dr. Jennifer Phillips
Dr. Pierre Blier and Dr. Jennifer Phillips

For people with treatment-resistant depression who have tried different medications but have not found anything that helps, ketamine has proven to be a life-changing – even life-saving – intervention. 

“The discovery of ketamine’s antidepressant effects has been hailed as one of the biggest breakthroughs in the field of depression in the past half-century,” says Dr. Jennifer Phillips, Associate Scientist in the Mood Disorders Research Unit at The Royal’s Institute of Mental Health Research (IMHR).

In a ground-breaking study published in 2019, Dr. Pierre Blier, Director of Mood Disorders Research at The Royal’s IMHR and Dr. Phillips were able to demonstrate that not only can ketamine be effective in rapidly treating those with severe depression or suicidal ideation – but that it can also have significant and prolonged effects

“We know that when ketamine works, it works faster, produces fewer side effects and is much cheaper than electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) – the current ‘gold standard’ treatment for treatment-resistant depression,” says Dr. Blier. 

To learn more, listen to this podcast in which Dr. Phillips and Sophie, a patient participant in the ketamine research study, share more about the promise of ketamine as a treatment for depression. The podcast was produced by the The Canadian Biomarker Integration Network in Depression (CAN-BIND). 

Esketamine – a more specific, non-invasive and easier to administer form of ketamine – has recently received Health Canada approval in the form of a nasal spray, and is used together with an oral medication for patients with treatment-resistant depression. Esketamine can lead to a therapeutic response – even remission – in patients who have failed to respond to other commonly prescribed medications. The treatment elicits rapid therapeutic effects and rapid reduction of suicidal ideation, often within just a few hours of the first treatment. Dr. Blier and Dr. Phillips are continuing their research with an aim to making ketamine treatment more readily available.