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David Tobin

How Does Ketamine Work in The Brain? Does It Help? – Everything You Need to Know

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David Tobin, (2022, January 3). How Does Ketamine Work in The Brain? Does It Help? – Everything You Need to Know. Psychreg on General. https://www.psychreg.org/how-does-ketamine-work-brain-does-it-help-everything-you-need-know/
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For most people, ketamine is a word popularly known in the social world and party scene as a drug used by revelers when they want to have a ‘good time.’ However, this is not the intent for which the drug is meant. In medicine, ketamine is a drug that was synthesized in the 1960s as a pain killer and anesthesia that has long been used in operating rooms around the world.  

In recent years, ketamine has proven to be a helpful drug in treating mental health conditions such as suicidal thoughts, depression, migraines, chronic pain, PTSD, and even OCD. For most people who live with these conditions, the ability of this anesthetic medication to ease the symptoms associated with long-term mental health issues is considered a breakthrough in mental health. It has proven to be especially helpful for people with treatment-resistant mental health issues who have not found relief with conventional treatment methods.

How does ketamine affect the brain? What are the ketamine effects on the brain? Is ketamine bad for your brain? How does ketamine treatment work? And how does ketamine help with depression? This article will answer all your questions on how ketamine works on the brain and ketamine infusion therapy as a whole.

Ketamine therapy: a trip through the treatment

According to the world health organization (WHO), depression is one of the leading causes of disability globally and affects more than 250 million people.

While most people can find relief with standard FDA-approved medication for depression, others do not. This is because depression medication is never a one size fits all. Studies show that only 30 to 40 percent of patients respond to conventional antidepressant medications.  

When a depressed patient fails to respond positively to two or more drug trials within four to six weeks of reaching the target dose, this form of depression is termed TRD (treatment resistant depression). Ketamine has been proven to relieve the symptoms associated with this type of depression when applied correctly at specialized centers such as Nepenthe Wellness Center.

How does ketamine therapy work?

Ketamine IV therapy or ketamine infusion therapy is administered as a series of infusions that take up to one and a half hours to administer. For the treatment of depression, a lower dose s used compared to that used in surgery. The treatment session also includes post-treatment observation to monitor a patient for possible side effects.

One of the most significant benefits of ketamine infusion therapy is how fast it works to relieve the symptoms associated with most mental health conditions. Compared to other antidepressant drugs that take weeks to months to start working, ketamine provides instant relief after an infusion session. Some of the ways the drug is believed to work on the brain include:

  • It reduces signals involved in inflammation.
  • It causes physical growth in the prefrontal cortex.
  • It increases the formation of new synapses in the brain.
  • Facilitates communication in specific areas of the brain.
  • It restores coordinated circuit activity

How ketamine affects the brain

With its use as a party drug (albeit illegal), anesthesia, and treatment for depression, it is common for people to wonder how does ketamine affect the brain?

  • Regulating glutamate and GABA levels. Ketamine affects the brain by targeting glutamate receptor genes. These genes are known to cause GABA imbalance, which is responsible for regulating nerve cell communication in the brain. GABA levels are connected to mental illness and dopamine production. When GABA levels change, it leads to mental health issues like depression. High levels of GABA lead to depression, while low levels cause anxiety.
  • Growing new neurotransmitters. Ketamine also affects synaptic growth in the brain. When low doses of ketamine are administered, they promote the development of new synapses (new neuron connections in the brain) in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. These are parts of the brain responsible for behavior, mood, memory, and character development.
  • Reducing lateral habenula activity. Ketamine has also been found to have an effect on the lateral habenula. This is the part of the brain responsible for regulating different functions such as maternal instinct, circadian rhythm, sleep, and pain. When there is abnormal behaviour in this part of the brain, it can often lead to mental health issues like depression since it causes feelings of a lack of pleasure and helplessness. Whenever a person is depressed, the lateral habenula overworks, causing negative feelings and thoughts. A study done in 2017 showed that ketamine had the ability to reset the habenula to relieve the symptoms of depression. 
  • Resetting the brain. Once ketamine finds its way into the bloodstream, it completely shuts off communication between the body and the brain, slowing down the overworking nervous system. This is believed to give neurotransmitters and other parts of the brain downtime to restructure and improve. Once these parts of the brain are turned on again, they function better. Research shows that ketamine has the ability to reach parts of the brain that other antidepressants do not.

Ketamine and depression treatment

Globally, the number of suicide cases related to depression increases yearly, with at least 16 million Americans experiencing a depressive episode at least once every year.

When a depressed patient is put under ketamine, its fact-acting properties quickly reduce the occurrence of suicidal or life-threatening thoughts that lead to self-harm. Ketamine can also be used to relieve other depressive symptoms, including anxiety, which is commonly associated with depression.  

Ketamine infusion therapy edges out other treatments for depression that take weeks or months to take effect. It also removes the need for patients to be put on different drugs in the trial period to determine the right fit for their symptoms while also serving as a way to treat other mental health conditions.

Ketamine therapy is categorised with other forms of treatments such as talk therapy, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), commonly used when other methods fail to help the patient.


David Tobin did his degree in psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. He is interested in mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.


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