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Is Ketamine A Psychedelic?

August 7, 2022

Research into psychedelic therapy is quickly re-emerging, with evidence suggesting that these substances could prove instrumental in managing severe and treatment-resistant mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, and addiction.

What are Psychedelic Substances?

Psychedelics are psychoactive substances that produce a change in perception, consciousness, and thought. They are either natural or synthetic. Some of the most common classic psychedelic substances are LSD and psilocybin (commonly known as “magic” mushrooms).

Naturally occurring psychedelics have been used for centuries by indigenous cultures for healing and spiritual purposes and were widely studied in the 1950s and 1960s for their potential therapeutic benefits. Unfortunately, this research halted in the 1970s due to the infamous counter-culture politics.

In recent years, however, there has been a renaissance in psychedelic research, and ketamine is at the forefront of this new wave of exploration.

What Is Ketamine?

Ketamine is an FDA-approved medication, primarily used for starting and maintaining anesthesia. It is a dissociative anesthetic, meaning it produces a sense of detachment from one’s surroundings, a common side-effect associated with psychedelic substances.

Recent studies have shown that low-dose ketamine has rapid-acting antidepressant effects. This made it an effective alternative treatment for various mental disorders, including severe depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and suicidal ideations.

Although ketamine is yet to be approved for the treatment of mood disorders by the FDA, its off-label use has become increasingly popular as an alternative treatment for many different mental health conditions, particularly those resistant to conventional treatments.

So, is Ketamine a Psychedelic?

Well, the answer depends on who you ask. Those that argue ketamine is a psychedelic typically site its mechanism of action, which bears some similarities to that of classic psychedelic substances. Psychedelics work by acting on serotonin 5-HT2A receptors. These receptors are found in high densities in the cortex and limbic system, the regions of the brain responsible for cognition, emotion, and memory. The activation of 5-HT2A receptors by psychedelics leads to increases in dopamine and norepinephrine release, resulting in the psychedelic experience.

Ketamine, on the other hand, works primarily as an N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor antagonist. NMDA receptors are found throughout the brain and are involved in a variety of cognitive processes, including learning, memory, and emotional processing.

It is thought that the therapeutic effects of ketamine are mediated by its action on NMDA receptors. Inhibition of NMDA receptors allows for increased release of glutamate and dopamine – leading to a cascade of events that eventually results in the therapeutic benefits associated with ketamine.

These similar effects may be why ketamine shares the same therapeutic benefits as classic psychedelics. This similarity in mode of action is also thought to underlie the shared side effects, namely dissociation, hallucinations, and altered states of consciousness.

Those who argue ketamine is not a psychedelic typically cite the difference in chemical structure between ketamine and classic psychedelic substances. Ketamine is an arylcyclohexylamine, while most psychedelics are tryptamines. This difference in chemical structure technically disqualifies ketamine from being classified as psychedelic.

So, What’s The Verdict? Is Ketamine A Psychedelic Or Not?

There is no definitive answer – at the end of the day, whether or not ketamine is a psychedelic is essentially a matter of definition. However, its similarities to classic psychedelics in terms of mode of action and therapeutic potential suggest that ketamine may indeed be a psychedelic substance.

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