Drugs lift depression in just a few hours

Depression need not linger if a new class of drugs that can improve symptoms within hours becomes available.

People with depression are often treated with drugs that increase levels of serotonin and other mood-enhancing chemicals in the brain. But these drugs typically take weeks, or even months, to work.

Drugs that target receptors for a chemical called NMDA appear to take effect much faster. Ketamine is one example. It can reduce symptoms of depression within hours, but also has hallucinatory side effects.

Now, Joseph Moskal and colleagues at Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill., have trialed a similar drug called GLYX-13, which also targets NMDA receptors. Moskal's team gave either GLXY-13 or a placebo to 116 people with depression who didn't respond to other treatments.

Those who received the drug reported their symptoms got better within two hours, with no significant side effects. The drug also performed significantly better than the placebo. The team presented their results at the American College of Neuropsycho-pharmacology annual meeting in Hollywood, Fla., in December.

Moskal reckons the drug works by boosting either the strength or number of connections between neurons, although it's not yet clear why this improves symptoms.

Gerard Sanacora at Yale School of Medicine thinks people with depression may experience a slump in activity in the frontal cortex of the brain, and the drug might reverse this.

"I'm excited about this whole class of drugs," he says. "It opens up a new vista for drug development for these disorders, although there's still a lot of work to be done." Moskal says he's aiming to get the drug to market by 2016.