According to researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, there’s a way to diminish the symptoms of depression in as quickly as one day, with little to no side effects. Furthermore, the benefits can last up to a week after just one treatment. Considering that conventionally prescribed medications such as Prozac, Zoloft and Lexapro often take up to a few weeks for noticeable mood changes to kick in, if they do at all — one-third of those taking such medications for clinical depression do not typically respond to these kinds of treatments — the finding is significant.(1)
However, it’s not without concern. Why?
The researchers’ discovery involves none other than laughing gas, also known as nitrous oxide. Those involved in this study suggest that it’s a safer, more effective alternative to traditional treatments and even similar non-traditional ones.
“Our findings need to be replicated, but we think this is a good starting point, and we believe therapy with nitrous oxide eventually could help many people with depression,” said principal investigator Peter Nagele, MD, assistant professor of anesthesiology at the School of Medicine. “It’s kind of surprising that no one ever thought about using a drug that makes people laugh as a treatment for patients whose main symptom is that they’re so very sad.”(1)
More studies necessary to determine effects of ketamine and nitrous oxide on the clinically depressed
Other people, though, take issue with this as well as similar findings from the past involving ketamine, noting that nitrous oxide acts similarly to ketamine as far as how they work in the brain. Ketamine — a powerful anesthetic which ensures that patients do not awaken during a surgical procedure — has been found to be effective in helping those with depression; in fact, such earlier findings were what prompted Nagele to look into nitrous oxide’s effects. However, when it comes to ketamine, concerns exist about it causing psychotic-like effects, elevating heart rate and blood pressure and also causing brain function to decline. Therefore, the fact that Nagele’s study was, in part, based on enthusiasm coming off the heels of ketamine-related findings has led some to view the effort in an unfavorable light. Ketamine is sometimes abused by people; its street name has been dubbed “Special K.”(2,3)
Of ketamine, Dominic A. Sisti, an assistant professor of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania, warned, “We are talking about a population that is particularly vulnerable.” He, along with several others, have concerns that not enough is known about the potential therapy, as it’s still at the experimental stages.(3)
Nitrous oxide study details
The study, though, led by Nagele appears to offer more hope. Titled “Nitrous Oxide for Treatment-Resistant Major Depression: a Proof-of-Concept Trial,” it was published in Biological Psychiatry. While it does state that “both ketamine and nitrous oxide have antidepressant effects in patients with treatment-resistant depression,” the study noted that “Depressive symptoms improved significantly at 2 hours and 24 hours after receiving nitrous oxide compared to placebo” and that “No serious adverse events occurred; all adverse events were brief and of mild to moderate severity.”(4)
For this latest study, 20 patients who had treatment-resistant clinical depression were studied. Researchers discovered that two-thirds experienced an improvement in symptoms after receiving nitrous oxide, while just one-third of these same patients also felt that their symptoms improved with a placebo. The study involved surveying the participants about symptoms such as their levels of anxiety, feelings of guilt, sadness and suicidal thoughts. It was determined that just one day after receiving nitrous oxide treatment, seven patients reported mild improvement in their symptoms and another seven reported significant improvement.(1)
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