Low addiction risk with medical use of ketamine: Animal study

Commonly used in medicine as an anaesthetic, ketamine is also increasingly prescribed to relieve depressive symptoms. This very fast-acting psychotropic drug is particularly indicated for the treatment of patients resistant to conventional antidepressants. However, its prescription has been the subject of debate: some believe that it presents a strong addictive risk. A team from the University of Geneva (UNIGE) has investigated this by administering the drug to mice. While it triggers an increase in dopamine in their brains — like all drugs — it also inhibits a specific receptor that precludes the progression to addiction. These results can be found in the journal Nature.

Discovered in 1962 by the American chemist Calvin Lee Stevens, ketamine is a synthetic drug derived from phencyclidine with powerful anaesthetic properties. It is commonly used in human and veterinary medicine, particularly for pain relief and brief sedation. It is also used illicitly for recreational purposes, its dissociative effect inducing an altered perception of reality.

For the past ten years or so, ketamine has also been prescribed to treat the depressive symptoms of people who are resistant to conventional treatments. Its action has the advantage of being very rapid: its effect is felt a few hours after the first dose, whereas traditional antidepressants take several weeks to act. Although its prescription is increasing for this type of treatment, this substance is still widely debated within the scientific community.

”Some people believe that ketamine presents a strong addictive risk if taken for a long time, others do not. The whole point of our research was to try to provide some answers,” explains Christian Lüscher, a Full Professor in the Department of Basic Neurosciences at the UNIGE Faculty of Medicine and a specialist in the mechanisms underlying addiction.

Addiction vs. Dependence

Addiction is defined as the compulsive use of a substance despite its negative consequences (behavioural disorder). Dependence, on the other hand, is characterised by the appearance of one or more withdrawal symptoms on abrupt cessation of use (physiological disorder). Dependence — the physical manifestations of which vary greatly depending on the drug — affects everyone. Addiction, on the other hand, affects only a minority of people and is not caused by all drugs.

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