Mental Illness Awareness Week: Mental Health Treatments in Development

It’s Mental Illness Awareness Week, a week dedicated to  raising awareness of mental illness, which affects approximately 1 in 5 Americans in a given year.

Depression is one of the most common mental health problems. 16 million adults, or almost 7% of the country’s population, had a depressive episode in the last year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

As part of Mental Illness Awareness Week, October 5 is National Depression Screening Day. If you or a loved one is concerned about depression, you can find a free screening in your area at HelpYourselfHelpOthers.org.

Current depression treatments  

One of the most prevalent treatments for depression, monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) were first developed in the 1950s. Another common treatment, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) fluoxetine -- Prozac -- was approved in the 1980s.

Few new treatments have to the market since then. And unfortunately, up to two thirds of people with depression don’t fully recover after antidepressant treatment.

Since the 1980s, new depression medications have mostly been what are called “me-too” drugs. They work on the same brain mechanisms as existing drugs, but may have different formulations. This means they may treat particular symptoms differently or may lead to different side effects. For example, if your depression comes with fatigue symptoms, one “me-too” drug may better target that particular symptom than others.

Newer research has also suggested that adding certain antipsychotic drugs can boost the effectiveness of traditional antidepressants. Abilify and Seroquel are common brand names for these augmentary treatments.

Research on the horizon

One new area of depression research, interestingly, involves the “club drug” ketamine, known as Special K.

Ketamine targets glutamate receptors in the brain, which play a role in memory, learning and cognition. Research suggests that glutamate malfunction may play a role in psychological disorders like schizophrenia and anxiety.

Researchers have conducted a few small, controlled studies treating antidepressant-resistant patients with ketamine. Early results suggest that ketamine is very fast acting -- participants reported reduced depression symptoms in just a few hours to a day. Most antidepressants take about six weeks before patients feel an effect.

Though ketamine is fast-acting, its effects also appear to be short lived, lasting only 7 to 10 days. Researchers say it may work best as a treatment for patients who are having suicidal thoughts as a fast treatment. The risks of long-term treatment with ketamine are unknown, and doctors strongly advise against self treatment.

Another area of research involves brain stimulation for depression treatment. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) applies a magnetic field to the scalp to stimulate brain cells and may alter brain paths involved in depression to improve mood. TMS is typically done on patients for whom other treatments, including talk therapy, haven’t been effective.

If you’re interested in participating in depression research and helping new treatments reach patients, search for a trial in your area today.

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