Depression affects millions of Americans. Overcoming it can help with a combination of talk therapy and antidepressants. The problem with both these things is that they take time to work. And, when you’re suffering from severe depression, just making it from one hour and into the next is a struggle.
The thought of waiting 4-6 weeks for medication to work—if it works at all—can seem like a hopeless situation.
Mental health care research has made great strides in creating a fast-acting antidepressant that will work in a matter of hours or days instead of weeks or months–but we’re not there yet.
However, two existing drugs—ketamine and scopolamine—have become the major focus of research efforts at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
Scientist Maura Furey who works at NIMH says the delay factor in most antidepressants can counteract the benefits they provide long-term. “[Finding] something that could work overnight or in a few days would have a potentially huge impact,” she reports.
The idea for creating a fast-acting antidepressant began more than 10 years ago, after scientists discovered the drug ketamine could start providing benefits within hours. The drug is mostly used in animals and targets receptors in the brain known as NDMA.
Unfortunately, ketamine causes major side effects in humans like amnesia, hallucinations, and disorientation. So scientists are trying to create a similar drug without the side effects. A drug called AZD6765 created great buzz last year after a study was published about it in the journal Science.
According to the study, 18 percent of people who took the medication had a full remission of their depression, lasting two days, compared to 10 percent who took a placebo.
Another drug called scopolamine—currently used to treat motion sickness—has shown great promise as a fast-acting antidepressant. Unlike ketamine, scopolamine works through the brain’s acetylcholine chemical messenger system, which plays a role in memory and how information is processed. By blocking receptors for acetylcholine on neurons, scopolamine could lift depression in many patients within a few days.
Unfortunately, like most drugs, scopolamine doesn’t work for everyone. It also has some annoying side effects like dry mouth and drowsiness, and it’s gotten a bad rap on the Web for allegedly being used in cases of date rape.
Although it may take another five years for a fast-acting antidepressant to reach the masses, Furey and her team discourage doctors from prescribing scopolamine off-label for depression.
Finally, the real struggle lies in how to design a treatment protocol to work long-term. Would therapy even be needed if antidepressants could provide almost instantaneous relief? Would medication need to be taken indefinitely so depression symptoms didn’t return? These questions will all be evaluated when safe, fast-acting antidepressants are ready for the marketplace.