Capsules containing ketamine. Photo: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP
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Could ketamine stop suicide?

The drug has been proven as a reliever of suicidal thoughts. With some doctors reluctant to prescribe SSRIs, it could provide the answer.

If suicide is the question, could ketamine be the answer? Nick Clegg has suggested suicide is avoidable in a well-structured NHS, but targeting the right people remains a complex issue.

It’s not just about depression, as the case of a 65-year-old woman who made a shocking announcement to her doctors demonstrated. “I’m fed up with life, I’ve had enough,” she said. “I don’t want to live any more . . . I no longer wish to live, to see anything, hear anything, feel anything . . .”

This was shocking because the feelings were induced not by depression, but by electrical stimulation of the brain. It was an unexpected side effect of an experimental treatment for Parkinson’s disease.

Applying a current through electrodes implanted in the patient’s brain was meant to alleviate tremors; instead, it brought on suicidal thoughts within five seconds, and 90 seconds after turning it off they were gone. Then came roughly five minutes of euphoria and general larking about.

This remarkable finding, reported in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1999, was one of the first to suggest that suicide and depression are not as inextricably linked as we might imagine.

We have more recent data, too. Ten years have passed since we discovered a link between suicidal thoughts and the antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Doctors became much more wary about prescribing SSRIs but the results were not as we’d hoped.

A Swedish study found that after warnings about SSRIs were issued in 2004, the suicide rate among ten-to-19-year-olds increased for five consecutive years – the largest group being those who were not prescribed antidepressants. In the US, child and adolescent suicide rates have risen by 14 per cent.

Two US-based researchers, Robert Gibbons and J John Mann, argue it is time to review the FDA warning. Writing in the Psychiatric Times, they point out that subsequent research has shown a complex relationship between suicide contemplation, depression and antidepressants. The result of the warning has not been a lower suicide rate. “Instead, we see fewer antidepressant prescriptions, an increase in youth suicides, and negative effects on human capital.”

The Parkinson’s patient’s experience – especially, perhaps, the euphoria and larking about – suggests that ketamine, the newest route to alleviating suicidal thoughts, might be more successful.

Most people know ketamine – if they know it at all – as a party drug. Though it was first developed as an anaesthetic, it can elicit euphoria at lower doses. We now know, thanks to a study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research in December, that ketamine is also a useful reliever of suicidal thoughts.

By giving 133 patients a dose of ketamine, researchers teased apart the links between suicidal thoughts, depression and anxiety, and they found that, although ketamine does relieve depression and anxiety, its effect on suicidal ideation is far stronger than on either of these. The effect is rapid – some patients report their contemplation of suicide gone within a couple of hours. According to a report in Nature, many pharmaceutical companies are now accelerating their ketamine research.

There are plenty of wrinkles to iron out. How would we set the threshold of eligibility? And how much autonomy do we give people? Where people are under the care of the state, all means for suicide are removed from those deemed at risk. Would we sanction a ketamine shot – or a routine of ketamine shots – as a mandatory measure to be used along with removal of belt and shoelaces? Or for anyone deemed to be a danger to themselves? If Clegg gets his way, we may soon find out. 

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear