Trinity’s Department of Psychiatry investigates ketamine as a potential treatment for depression

Anaesthetic ketamine now being considered as a treatment for preventing depressive relapses


Trinity College’s Department of Psychiatry is leading a series of trials investigating the effectiveness of ketamine in treating depression. The trials will be overseen by Professor Declan McLoughlin, a research professor of psychiatry, along with his team at St Patrick’s Mental Health Services.

Professor McLoughlin has said that the antidepressant qualities of the anaesthetic ketamine were discovered 15 years ago. However, while ketamine may alleviate depression instantly and temporarily, these trials will investigate whether the substance can also prevent relapses of serious depression. The research team have said that roughly 60% of Irish people treated for depression suffer relapses within six months and sufferers will have on average five to nine depressive episodes in their lifetime.

Professor McLoughlin said: “In our studies, we aim to see whether it’s possible to harness that powerful antidepressant action of ketamine to prevent future depressive episodes in people who have recently recovered from depression. This has never been done before.”

The research will be divided into two trials, both funded by the Health Research Board and the Medical Research Charities Group. The KEEP-WELL Trial will focus on people who have responded to Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) as a treatment for depression. Approximately 70% of people treated this way respond to the process. Professor McLoughlin explained that this group would be administered ketamine or a placebo once a week for four weeks.

The second trial, the KINDRED Trial, will focus on people who have been hospitalised with serious depression and treated with standard methods. The research team has said these people will be administered ketamine as soon as they have recovered from their depression as a result of the standard treatment methods.

Professor McLoughlin explained that while ketamine may be a quick solution for depressive episodes, its dissociative effects may encourage substance abuse. “Ketamine is routinely used as an anaesthetic drug. Because it can have some dissociative effects or make you feel like you are disassociating from reality, that’s why people take it as a recreational drug. The problem is they take it in much higher doses.”

Professor McLoughlin explained that these trials would be conducted safely, as the doses would be sub-anaesthetic and too small to encourage addiction. However, he added that roughly 15% of participants in the trials may experience mild dissociative effects for approximately half an hour.

On average, 200,000 people in Ireland experience depression each year. Roughly 6,000 of those people are hospitalised. Professor McLoughlin said that depression was the main cause of long-term sick-leave in the EU. According to the World Health Organisation, depression is the most common form of disability worldwide. “It is therefore a public health priority to not only recognize and treat depression but also to keep people well afterwards,” Professor McLoughlin said.

The exact manner in which ketamine operates on the body is unknown, though it is believed to change the pathways of dysfunctional brainways, in a process known as “neuroplasticity”. The research team are looking for healthy volunteers to take part in mood and memory assessments. The team will also take blood samples to analyse ketamine’s effect on the bloodstream. The volunteers will not receive any treatments or medications. Those wishing to participate may contact [email protected].