Depression is the main cause of disability in the world. It is estimated to affect more than 350 million people. Treatment can involve psychotherapy and/or antidepressant medication. While these treatments are effective, they can take time, and the type of antidepressant needs to be appropriate to the individual. Someone may have to try several types of antidepressant before finding the right one. One in five do not respond to current treatment. These shortcomings have led to research into finding new ways of beating depression. Some of these approaches are certainly novel, if not downright weird.
Beating Depression With Heat
Since antiquity, many cultures have favoured heated enclosures for their therapeutic effects. The ancient Greeks & Romans had heated rooms within their public baths, Celts may have had sweat-houses, Native American tribes had sweat-lodges and Scandinavians had saunas.
Not all of the supposed therapeutic effects of a sauna have been confirmed by science. However, research has shown that they can improve your mood and make you feel more relaxed.
But could they be used to treat depression? Dr. Raison of the University of Arizona decided to find out.
Previous research has shown that people with depression have higher than normal body core temperatures. Normally we sweat to cool down, but this doesn’t seem to happen in the same way for depressed people. Dr. Raison wondered if this inability to regulate temperature might contribute to depression.
“Maybe some people are depressed not just totally because of their brain – maybe it’s in their skin; their skin is sending some wrong signal to the brain.” – Charles Raison
In the study fifteen people had their temperatures raised to 38.5 degrees Celsius (101 degrees Fahrenheit). Fourteen subjects had a sham treatment. They were exposed to heaters, lights and fans but their temperatures were not raised. Most did not know if they took part in the real or sham experiment (although a few worked it out).
The results were interesting. All 29 participants had scored highly on the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale before the experiment. Those whose temperatures were raised to a mild fever appeared to improve significantly. This improvement was still present when checked on six weeks after the experiment. The authors conclude that “Whole-body hyperthermia holds promise as a safe, rapid-acting, antidepressant modality with a prolonged therapeutic benefit.”
Wow, but… the numbers in this study are very small. It appears to be an interesting area for further study, but that’s about all for now.
Beating Depression With Magic Mushrooms
Yep! In another small study, twelve people were given Psilocybin, the active compound of magic mushrooms. The six men and six women suffered from moderate to severe treatment-resistant depression. Most had previously received both psychotherapy and at least two courses of antidepressants.
The experiment involved the patients taking capsules containing psilocybin. A Psychiatrist monitored them while the drug took effect. All twelve of the participants had psychedelic experiences from the capsules. They were all allowed to go home after six hours. Presumably the majority of this time was spent tripping.
After one week everyone showed reduced symptoms of depression. Eight of the twelve even achieved temporary remission. Three months later, five patients were still in remission. The rest also showed a continuing reduction in their symptoms.
Again though, this was a very small feasibility study. All of the participants knew that they were receiving psilocybin. None were given a dummy pill.
“Psilocybin targets the serotonin receptors in the brain, just as most antidepressants do, but it has a very different chemical structure to currently available antidepressants and acts faster than traditional antidepressants.” – David Nutt, senior author, Imperial College London
Beating Depression With “Special K”
Ketamine is used as an anesthetic. However, it is also sold illegally as a party drug. It has various street names including Special K and Horse Tranquilizer. It can induce a trance-like state where one feels dissociated from one’s own body. Because of this, it has also been used as a date rape drug.
However, ketamine may have further benign medical uses. A study by a team from Massachusetts General Hospital found that low doses of ketamine, in addition to antidepressants, can reduce the suicidal thinking in depressed patients. Again the numbers were small, fourteen people with moderate to severe treatment-resistance depression. They all had endured suicidal thoughts for three months or longer.
After being administered the low dose of ketamine, each patient was checked up on at weekly intervals. After three months 7 people no longer had suicidal thoughts. Most of the rest experienced a reduction in suicidal thoughts. Two dropped out of the study.
Again the numbers are small here. And again, the participants knew that they were getting ketamine, there was no placebo.
This study builds on others that suggest ketamine may have a part to play as a fast-acting antidepressant. A recent study by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) may have pinpointed the reason ketamine can improve depression symptoms. They identified a metabolite that is created as the body breaks down ketamine. This metabolite showed the same ability to reverse depression without any of the side-effects of ketamine. The study was done with mice though, so the next step is to test it on humans.
“Now that we know that ketamine’s antidepressant actions in mice are due to a metabolite, not ketamine itself, the next steps are to confirm that it works similarly in humans, and determine if it can lead to improved therapeutics for patients.” – Todd Gould, University of Maryland
While these studies show promise and they build on previous studies, it should be noted that these possible treatments are at a very early stage. Much more research is needed to test their efficacy and safety. For now, psychotherapy and, if warranted, antidepressants are the safest and most effective treatments available.
If you are on antidepressants, always check with your Doctor before discontinuing your treatment. And never, ever be tempted to self-medicate based on a few studies with small numbers.
Thanks for reading! If you like this post then please share and comment below but play nice! Abusive comments may be removed.