Cirque Lodge > Blog > Addiction > How Does Ketamine Affect the Brain?

A dissociative anesthetic medication, ketamine is often used during surgery on both humans and animals. As a Schedule III drug, ketamine is effective and safe when used in controlled medical settings.

However, ketamine has the potential for abuse and addiction when used recreationally. In addition to producing hallucinogenic effects, the drug can distort your perception of sound and visuals.

Having been used legally as a form of anesthesia and illegally as a club drug, ketamine is now being used to treat treatment-resistant depression. Ketamine therapy using esketamine can help to treat depression by decreasing depression severity. However, further research is needed to understand its long-term effects.

What Is Ketamine?

Ketamine is a short-acting anesthetic medication with dissociative effects that is used to prevent pain during surgery performed on both humans and animals. Unlike other anesthetic medications, ketamine causes amnesia and analgesia (the inability to feel pain) without inducing cardiovascular and respiratory depression.

Ketamine was first synthesized in the 1960s and was used medically in the Vietnam war before being approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for clinical use in the United States in 1970. In anesthetic use, ketamine is administered intravenously or intramuscularly, meaning it is injected into the veins or muscles.

In addition, ketamine can also be used as a treatment for chronic pain. Ketamine treatment for chronic pain is generally only employed when opioid medication has proved unsuccessful in controlling pain. It works by blocking N-methyl-D-aspartate, a receptor in the spinal cord that functions by sending pain receptors to the brain in the presence of pain. Although it is not FDA-approved for treating pain yet, the effects of ketamine in easing chronic pain appear positive.

Ketamine is a grainy light brown or white powder in terms of appearance. It also comes in a clear, odorless liquid and can additionally be found in tablet form. Due to some of the effects of ketamine, it is often used recreationally as a club drug and has a high potential for abuse due to the effects it produces.

Some street names for ketamine include:

  • Cat valium
  • Ket
  • Special K
  • Super acid
  • Kit-Kat
  • K

Using ketamine recreationally can leave you experiencing a detached, dreamlike state, and it can also leave you encountering out-of-body experiences. Unfortunately, this leaves it open for abuse.

Sadly, ketamine is also known as a date rape drug due to the lack of control someone has over the brain and body when they take it.

What Are the Side Effects of Ketamine Abuse?

When used recreationally, ketamine can be extremely dangerous. Abusing ketamine puts you at risk of what is known as a 'k-hole,' which is when users feel detached from reality and experience intense hallucinations. This can be an incredibly frightening experience.

Some of the side effects associated with ketamine abuse include:

  • Feeling in a dreamlike and out-of-body state
  • Hallucinations
  • Sedation and drowsiness
  • Confusion, disorientation, and trouble focusing and thinking
  • Amnesia and forgetfulness
  • Decreased coordination and awareness of the environment
  • Feeling strong and powerful
  • Anxiety and irritability
  • Dissociation
  • Reduced feelings of pain

Some of the physical side effects include:

  • Slowed breathing
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Decreased heart rate
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Increased heart rate (at low doses)
  • Double vision
  • Seizures
  • Problems with verbal fluency
  • Lightheadedness

Using ketamine illegally can also result in chest pain, shaking, flashbacks, psychosis, and paranoia.

Ketamine Abuse and Alcohol

Mixing ketamine with alcohol can be fatal. Combining both substances can lead to a toxic effect as some of their similar effects become synergized. It can also increase the chance of coma, slowed breathing, memory loss, and death.

Abusing ketamine can also lead to irreversible and lasting damage to the bladder, resulting in urinary tract issues. This risk is amplified if ketamine and alcohol are used simultaneously.

If you or a loved one mix alcohol and ketamine, dual diagnosis treatment must be sought via a rehab center, such as our own.

How Ketamine Affects the Brain

Ketamine affects the brain by working in the glutamate system, where neurons communicate with each other. High doses of ketamine appear to block glutamate receptors, making it a useful anesthetic.

However, at low doses, the production of glutamate increases, which can promote synaptic growth.

What Is Major Depressive Disorder?

Major depressive disorder (MDD), sometimes referred to as clinical depression, is a mood disorder classed as severe depression. While many people will go through periods where they feel low and sad, such as after being diagnosed with an illness or experiencing the death of someone close to them, these feelings will only usually be temporary.

However, for some people, intense and lasting feelings of sadness may indicate that they are suffering from major depressive disorder.

How Can Ketamine Treatment Be Used for Treatment-Resistant Depression?

Conventional antidepressant treatment is unsuccessful among those who have what is known as treatment-resistant depression. Treatment-resistant depression has various definitions, but it is generally understood as a type of depression that has not responded to traditional antidepressant medication or professional talk therapy.

To help those with this type of depression, research into other forms of treatment and ketamine's antidepressant effects have gained much attention. As noted above, ketamine works by interacting with glutamate receptors in the brain. This differs from many other antidepressants that affect one 'monoamine' neurotransmitter, such as dopamine, serotonin, or norepinephrine.

Depression treatment involving ketamine includes an isomer of ketamine called esketamine that works in the glutamatergic system to produce antidepressant effects by enhancing synaptic connections.

Those with depression and chronic stress lack connections in their synapses. Esketamine is powerful and works by blocking N-Methyl-D-aspartate receptors (NMDARs), leading to new synaptic connections. This synaptic growth can improve mental health by regulating emotional behavior and mood. The FDA approved Esketamine as a nasal spray to treat treatment-resistant depression in 2019.

Esketamine has rapid effects, so relief from depression is much quicker than other antidepressants or other forms of treatment such as repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) therapy or electroconvulsive (ECT) therapy.

Although the benefits of using ketamine to reduce the side effects associated with major depressive disorder may seem advantageous, ketamine should not be used without medical support or guidance. If you have a ketamine addiction or are in recovery, ketamine treatment for depression is not advised. Instead, you should seek other treatment options via a trained health professional.


Ketamine has varied medical uses. It can be used as an anesthetic and as a treatment for chronic pain and depression due to how it interacts with brain activity in the glutamatergic system. Due to increasing synaptic growth when taken in low doses, ketamine is an option when it comes to treating treatment-resistant depression.

However, due to its high potential for abuse, ketamine is a controlled drug. As a result, the use of ketamine as a medical treatment should be approved by a professional.

If you are worried that someone is overdosing on ketamine, call a medical professional immediately. Likewise, if you are struggling with a ketamine addiction, please contact us today to find out how we can support you in your recovery. Although it may not seem like it, treatment is available to help you overcome your ketamine addiction, and it is entirely possible to secure a lifelong recovery.

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