NIH Scientists Identify a Potential New Treatment for Depression: A Metabolite of Ketamine

In a remarkable example of scientific collaboration, a new study produced by scientists at various research centers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have identified how ketamine works as powerful and fast-acting anti-depressant. This discovery may lead to an effective and potent new treatment for depression.

Ketamine is normally used as an anesthetic but at low doses, it has been shown to have rapid acting and long-lasting anti-depressant effects in humans. Fast relief of depression is incredibly important because most anti-depressant medications are not very effective or can take weeks (or even months in some cases) for maximal effect, which hurts the recovery of patients suffering from this crippling psychiatric disorder. However, despite its rapid action, ketamine has many side effects such as euphoria (a “high” feeling), dissociative effects (a type of hallucination involving a sense of detachment or separation from the environment and the self), and it is addictive.

If ketamine could be made safe to use without any of its other more dangerous properties, it would be a powerful anti-depressant medication.

With this goal in mind, scientists at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), National Institute on Aging (NIA), National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), University of Maryland, and University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill sought to unravel the mystery of how ketamine works.

When ketamine enters the body it is broken down (metabolized) into many other chemical byproducts (metabolites). The team of scientists identified that it’s not ketamine itself but one of it’s metabolites, called HNK, that is responsible for ketamine’s anti-depressant action Most importantly HNK does not have any of the addictive or hallucinogenic properties of ketamine. What does this mean? This special metabolite can now be produced and can be given to patients while ketamine (and all its unwanted negative side effects) can be bypassed.

depressionOf course, many tests still need to be done in humans to confirm the effectiveness of HNK, but the study is an amazing example of how an observation can be made in the clinic, brought in the lab for detailed analysis, and then brought back to the clinic as a potential effective treatment.

But how did the scientist’s do it and how do they know that this HNK is what’s responsible for ketamine’s depression-fighting power? Keep reading below to find out.

Also, check out the NIH’s press release on the study.

The original study can be found here.

What is ketamine?

Chemical structure of ketamine (

Ketamine has traditionally been used an as anesthetic due to it’s pain relieving and consciousness-altering properties [1]. However, at doses too low to induce anesthesia, it has been shown that ketamine has the ability to relieve depression [2]. Even more remarkably, the anti-depressant effects of ketamine occur within a few hours and can last for a week with only a single dose. Most anti-depressant medications can take weeks before they start relieving the symptoms of depression (this is due to how those medications work in the brain).

However, ketamine also has unwanted psychoactive properties, which limits its usefulness in the treatment of depression. Ketamine causes an intense high or sense of euphoria as well as hallucinogenic effects such as dissociation, a bizarre sense of separation of the mind from the self and environment. Ketamine is also addictive and is an abused party drug [3].

A debate has been going about whether ketamine should be used for the treatment of depression and if its risks outweigh its benefits [4]. However, what if ketamine itself is not responsible for the anti-depressant function but a chemical byproduct of ketamine? This is what the scientist’s in this study reported: it’s HNK and not ketamine that are responsible for the powerful anti-depressant functions. This discovery was made in mice but how do scientists even study depression in a mouse?


How do scientists study depression in rodents?


Depression is a complex psychological state that is difficult to study but scientists have developed a number of tests to measure depressive-like behavior in rodents. While any one particular test is probably not good enough to measure depression, the combination of multiple tests—especially if similar results are found for each test—provide an accurate measurement of depression in rodents.

Some of the tests include:

Forced Swim Test

As the name reveals, in this test rodents are place in a cylinder of water in which they cannot escape are a forced to swim. Mice and rats are very good swimmers and when placed in the water will swim around for a while, searching for a way to escape. However, after a certain amount of time, the mouse will “give up” and simply stop swimming and will just float there. This “giving up” is used as a proxy for depression, similar to how people that are depressed often lack perseverance or motivation to keep trying. If you a give drug and the mice swim for much longer than without the drug, then you can make the argument that the drug had an anti-depressant effect. See this video of a Forced Swim Test.

Learned Helplessness Test

One theory of depression is that it can result from being placed in a bad situation in which we have no control over. This test models this type of scenario.

First, mice are place in chamber where they experience random foot shocks (the learning about the bad, hopeless situation). Next, they are place in a chamber that has two compartments. When a foot shock occurs, a door opens to a “safe” chamber, which gives the mouse an opportunity to escape the bad situation. One measure of depression is that some mice won’t try to escape or will fail to escape. In essence, they’ve given up at trying to escape the bad situation (learned helplessness). You can then take these “depressed” mice, and run the experiment again but this time with the anti-depressant drug you want to test and see how they do at escaping the foot shocks. Read more here.

Chronic Social Defeat Stress

Imagine you had a bully that would beat you up every day but the bully lived next door to you and would stare at you through his bedroom window? It would probably make you feel pretty crummy, wouldn’t it? Well, in essence, that’s what chronic social defeat stress test is all about [5].

A male mouse is placed in a cage with a much larger, older, and meaner male mouse that then attacks it. After the attack session, the “victim” mouse is housed in a cage where it can see and smell the bigger mouse. This induces a sense of hopelessness or depression in the “victim” mouse and it will not try to interact with a “stranger”” mouse if given a choice between the stranger and an empty cage (mice are pretty curious animals and will usually sniff around a cage with a unfamiliar mouse in it). This social avoidance is a measure of depression. In contrast, some mice will be resilient or resistant to this type of stress and will interact normally with the “stranger” mouse. Similar to above, you can test an anti-depressant drug in the “resilient” mice and the “depressed” mice.

There are a few others but these are three of the main ones used in this paper.

How did the NIH scientists figure out how Ketamine works to fight depression?

It was believed that ketamine’s anti-depressant function was due to its ability to inhibit the activity of the neurotransmitter glutamate. Specifically, ketamine inhibits a special target of glutamate called the NMDA receptor [6].

The first thing done is this paper was to study ketamine’s effects in rodent models of depression and sure enough, it was effective at relieving depression-like behavior in the mice.

Ketamine comes in two different chemical varieties or enantiomers, R-ketamine and S-ketamine. Interestingly, the R-version was more effective than the S-version (this will be more important later).

Recall that ketamine is though to work because it inhibits the NMDA receptor, but the scientists found that another drug, MK-801, that also directly inhibits the NMDA receptor, did have the same anti-depressant effects. So what is it about ketamine that makes it a useful anti-depressant then if not it’s ability to inhibit the NMDA receptor?

Ketamine is broken down into multiple different other chemical byproducts or metabolites once it enters the body. The scientists were able to isolate and measure these different metabolites from the brains of mice. For some reason one of the metabolites, (2S,6S;2R,6R)-hydroxynorketamine (HNK) was found to be three times higher in females compared to males. Ketamine was also more effective at relieving depression in female mice compared to male mice and the scientists wondered: could it be because of the difference in the levels of the ketamine metabolite HNK?

To test this, a chemically modified version of ketamine was produced that can’t be metabolized. Amazingly the ketamine that couldn’t be broken down did not have any anti-depressant effects. This finding strongly suggests that it’s really is one of the metabolites, and not ketamine itself, that’s responsible for the anti-depressant activity. The most likely candidate? The HNK compound that showed the unusual elevation in females vs males.

Similar to ketamine, HNK comes in two varieties, (2S,6S)-HNK and (2R,6R)-HNK. The scientists knew that the R-version of ketamine was more potent than the S-version so they wondered if the same was true for HNK. Sure enough, (2R,6R)-HNK was able to relieve depression in mice while the S-version did not. The scientists appeared to have identified the “magic ingredient” of ketamine’s depression-relieving power.

These experiments required a great deal of sophisticated and complex analytical chemistry. However, this is beyond my area of expertise so unfortunately cannot discuss it further.

So now the team had what they thought was the “magic ingredient” from ketamine for fighting depression. But could they support their behavior work with more detailed molecular analyses?

The next step was to look at the actual properties of neurons themselves and see if (2R,6R)-HNK changed their function in the short and long term. Using a series of sophisticated electrophysiology experiments in which the activity of individual neurons can be measured, the scientists found that glutamate signaling was indeed disrupted. However, it appeared that a different type of glutamate receptor was involved: the AMPA receptor, and not NMDA receptor. The scientists confirmed this with protein analysis; components of the AMPA receptor increased in concentration in the brain over time. These data suggest that it is alterations in glutamate-AMPA signaling that underlies the long-term effectiveness of HNK.

OK, so great! HNK reduces depression but does it still have all the other nasty side effects of ketamine? If it does, then it’s no better than ketamine itself.

For the final set of experiments, the scientists looked at the psychoactive and addictive properties of ketamine. Using a wide range of behavioral tests that I won’t go into the details of, 2R,6R)-HNK had a much lower profile of side effects than ketamine.

Finally, ketamine is an addictive substance that can and is abused illegally. A standard test of addiction in mouse models is self-administration (I’ve discussed this technique previously). Mouse readily self-administer ketamine, which indicates they want to take more and more of it, just like a human addict. However, rodent’s do not self-administer HNK! This means that HNK is not addictive like ketamine.

mental health

In conclusion, (2R,6R)-HNK appears to be extremely effective at relieving depression in humans, has less side-effects than ketamine, and is not effective. Sounds pretty good to me!

Next step: does HNK work in humans? To be continued….

Selected References

  1. Peltoniemi MA, et al. Ketamine: A Review of Clinical Pharmacokinetics and Pharmacodynamics in Anesthesia and Pain Therapy. Clinical pharmacokinetics. 2016.
  1. Newport DJ, et al. Ketamine and Other NMDA Antagonists: Early Clinical Trials and Possible Mechanisms in Depression. The American journal of psychiatry. 2015;172(10):950-66.
  1. Morgan CJ, et al. Ketamine use: a review. Addiction. 2012;107(1):27-38.
  1. Sanacora G, Schatzberg AF. Ketamine: promising path or false prophecy in the development of novel therapeutics for mood disorders? Neuropsychopharmacology : official publication of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology. 2015;40(5):1307.
  1. Hollis F, Kabbaj M. Social defeat as an animal model for depression. ILAR journal / National Research Council, Institute of Laboratory Animal Resources. 2014;55(2):221-32.
  1. Abdallah CG, et al. Ketamine’s Mechanism of Action: A Path to Rapid-Acting Antidepressants. Depression and anxiety. 2016.



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