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Anesthetic Found to Help Intractable Depression

Depression is often a co-diagnosis with addiction. Estimates go as high as 60 percent for having both. And a significant portion of depressed patients find no relief from any existing drug therapies. For those patients, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) has been the only thing left to try. And while ECT does help many people, sending a patient into a seizure with an electric shock to the brain seems like a horrible way to practice medicine. Researchers now report there may be an alternative to ECT – an anesthetic drug called isoflurane.

When depression won’t lift from drug therapy, it’s referred to as “refractory depression.” For these patients, up to 90% will obtain some improvement in symptoms with ECT. Along with this however, patients often suffer amnesia or problems with concentration and maintaining attention.

A small study comparing ECT with isoflurane shoed that both treatments showed significant reduction in depression symptoms but only the isoflurane patients demonstrated no enduring cognitive effects from the treatment.

Isoflurane has been brought forward as a possible treatment for depression as long as 30 years ago. According to Science News Daily, the drug fell out of favor when initial tests weren’t confirmed by later studies. If the results of this trial hold up, the drug, which is already FDA approved for human use, could see doctors using it almost immediately. The pilot study only had 28 patients, so the researchers involved are hesitant to make any broad claims for the treatment. Instead, they’d like to see a larger clinical trial comparing the two treatments.

Patients being treated with the anesthetic are put “under” for about 45 minutes and then allowed to recover from the anesthesia. The procedure isn’t without danger, since patients do need the services of an anesthesiologist and hospital facilities in case something goes wrong. But administration is no more dangerous than being administered anesthesia for surgery.

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