Antidepressants estimate to be ineffective in about a third of patients with severe depression. Peter Nagele of the University of Chicago and his colleagues have experienced an astonishing course of treatment: making them inhale laughing gas.
Nitrous oxide (that’s its scientific name) was tested in a first pilot study a few years ago, but with a high risk of side effects like dizziness, nausea, or vomiting. Hence the idea of lowering the concentration a little, which divided the risk by 4 on a sample of 24 depressive patients. After one hour of inhaling a mixture containing 25% nitrous oxide, the mood of the participants (measured by a standard questionnaire) improved markedly. And in some, the improvement lasted up to a month.
How does the gas work? Not by causing healthy fits of laughter or a feeling of euphoria: at this dose, its effect is rather slightly numbing. The key seems to lie in the ability of nitrous oxide to modulate the activity of various brain regions and the action of a neural receptor, the NMDA receptor, involved in the neurobiology of depression. This treatment remains to be validated in phase III clinical trials, including a large number of patients.
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