February 2, 2024

The Science Behind Ketamine for Improving Mental Health

Ketamine Infusion Therapy - Depression

With the increasing stressors of modern life, many people are searching for effective treatments to improve their mental health. One such treatment is Ketamine Therapy. In this article, we will delve into the science behind Ketamine Therapy, how it is making a positive impact in peoples’ lives, and how it may be beneficial for you.

What Is Ketamine?

Ketamine is classified as a dissociative anesthetic and NMDA receptor antagonist. It has been used in hospitals for inducing anesthesia since the 1960s, but has recently received recognition for its ability to treat mental health disorders as well as chronic pain. Most notably, in 2019 the FDA approved an intranasal form of ketamine for treatment-resistant depression. We will be focusing on how ketamine is used for mental health in this article, but stay tuned for a part-two where we discuss Ketamine and its uses for pain management.

How Does Ketamine Improve Mental Health?

It has long been believed that mental health disorders arise from imbalances in the brain’s neurochemistry, specifically low levels of certain neurotransmitters including serotonin, norepinephrine and/or dopamine. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that carry signals from one neuron to the next and are vital for our well-being. 

Typical antidepressants try to address this imbalance, but along with their slow onset and extensive list of negative side effects, typical antidepressants only increase one or two neurotransmitters. In contrast, ketamine has been shown to increase several neurotransmitters in the brain while providing rapid relief with very few, temporary side effects. 

What Neurotransmitter Does Ketamine Affect?

Ketamine is an NMDA antagonist, meaning it blocks the glutamate receptor NMDA causing a large amount of glutamate to be available in the brain. As one of the most abundant excitatory neurotransmitters, glutamate fires off signals to other neurons in the brain increasing levels of certain neurotransmitters including: serotonin, dopamine and GABA, resulting in a decrease in symptoms of depression, anxiety and PTSD. While neurotransmitters are responsible for numerous different actions in the brain and body, the table below refers to their most prominent activities.

 

Neurotransmitter Main Actions
Dopamine
  • Also known as “the feel good hormone”
  • Feelings of pleasure, satisfaction and motivation
Glutamate
  • Helps make GABA
  • Sleep, memory, cognition and mood regulation
GABA
  • Also known as “the calming hormone”
  • Sleep, relaxation, anxiety regulation and muscle function
Serotonin
  • Mood, emotions, appetite and digestion
  • Helps with sleep-wake cycles as serotonin is used to make melatonin

How Does Ketamine Fix The Brain?

So far, we have explained how ketamine increases important neurotransmitters resulting in improved mood, motivation, sleep and cognition; but how does ketamine actually improve neuroplasticity, or the ability of the brain to grow and regenerate neural connections? 

We know that stress and trauma do more than just deplete neurotransmitters, it can also cause damage to brain cells. While the mechanism is not yet fully understood, researchers have used animal models to demonstrate ketamines ability to regrow damaged connections between neurons, relieving these animals of depressive symptoms.

In one study, researchers used mice to look at how the brain changed after a stressful or traumatic event, and then observed changes in the brain after receiving ketamine. To do this, researchers took images of the brains of mice: at baseline (or the beginning of the study without modifying any factors), after exposing them to stressors, and then after these exposed mice received a single dose of ketamine. Researchers visualized damage to the neurons after exposing the mice to stressors that were not there at baseline, and noted that the mice were showing signs of depression. Interestingly enough, within hours of receiving ketamine, the mice showed improvements in their behavior and their post-ketamine scans showed the neuronal damage had been restored. 

How Does Ketamine Grow The Brain?

The main catalyst for ketamine actually growing the brain involves a protein called BDNF or brain derived neurotrophic factor. BDNF helps your brain create new cells and studies have shown that levels of BDNF are typically lower in people with depression. Similarly, genetic mutations can cause low levels of BDNF, and the lower the BDNF, the worse the depression tends to be. 

One study used rats to look at the effects of ketamine on BDNF. Rats were either given a placebo medication, a typical antidepressant or ketamine and then were placed in a stressful situation. The rats who received either ketamine or the standard antidepressant were able to overcome the stressor, however, only the rats who received ketamine demonstrated increased levels of BDNF. A similar study on humans demonstrated a positive relationship between improvements in mood after receiving ketamine and higher levels of BDNF in the body. 

What About Inflammation?

Research has shown a correlation between individuals with mental illness and high levels of inflammatory markers in the body. We know that inflammation can be useful in certain cases, i.e. to fight off a cold or heal an injury, but chronic inflammation can cause severe damage to healthy cells. That being said, ketamine has been shown to reduce all of the anti-inflammatory markers that are typically elevated in mental health patients. Similarly, by altering the brain’s neurochemistry and healing the brain, ketamine can allow patients to make changes in their daily life that also reduce inflammation like exercise and improved nutrition.

Summary

In conclusion, there are many pathways involved with how ketamine acts in the brain to improve mood, repair and grow the brain. We discussed how ketamine is an NMDA antagonist, meaning it acts on the glutamate receptor NMDA to increase levels of glutamate in the body. Glutamate then excites other neurons resulting in the release of neurotransmitters that affect mood, sleep, memory, cognition and motivation. Similarly, by repairing neurons and increasing levels of BDNF, ketamine actually grows and repairs the brain. Finally, ketamine can even reduce negative inflammation which has recently been studied as one factor associated with mental illness. While research is still ongoing, many are fascinated by ketamine’s independent ability to actually heal the body and the mind, and impact physical and mental health for the better.

Why Choose Mind Body Centers?

At Mind Body Centers, our experienced medical professionals provide Ketamine therapy in a safe, comfortable, and supportive environment. We understand the importance of individualized care and work closely with each patient to tailor their treatment plan to their specific needs.

With clinics conveniently located in Gilbert, Arizona, Littleton, Colorado, and Burnsville, Minnesota, we aim to make Ketamine therapy accessible to those seeking relief from mental health conditions.

If your a loved one is looking for an effective and scientifically-backed approach to mental health treatment, consider Ketamine therapy at Mind Body Centers.

Reach out to us today at mindbodycenters.com to learn more and schedule a consultation.

Remember, your mental health matters, and there are innovative options available to help you on your journey to well-being.

Resources

  1. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0038550
  2. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aat8078

(Mice study, brains)

3.https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/biochemistry-genetics-and-molecular-biology/dendritic-spine

  1. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0165-1781(02)00005-7
  2. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pnpbp.2007.07.027

(Rat study, BDNF)

  1. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41398-019-0601-8
  2. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1461145713001119

(Human study, BDNF)

  1. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2021.03.014
  2. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/22839-glutamate
  3. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/326649#acetylcholine
  4. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aat8078
  5. Dow, Dr. Mike. The Ketamine Breakthrough. Hay House Inc., April 04, 2023. 
  6. https://doi.org/10.1097/PCC.0b013e31822f18f9
  7. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-66532-6
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