Psychedelic drugs are being investigated for their therapeutic properties, particularly in the realm of mental health disorders. A version of psilocybin, for example, has been approved for human testing that is currently underway. However, as of this post, no psychedelic drugs have yet been approved by the FDA for the treatment of any disorders.This means that ketamine, as an approved drug, is not a psychedelic compound. How, then, does it compare to drugs that are classified as such? And why does it produce similar experiences to psychedelic drugs? 

Ketamine Has Psychedelic Properties

While ketamine is not, in itself, a psychedelic compound, it does have psychedelic properties. It has long been used as an anesthetic in the operating room due to its ability to block pain transmission in the spinal cord. The drug does this primarily by acting on the NMDA receptor in the brain.

In addition to pain relief (analgesia) and the loss of physical sensation (anesthesia), ketamine also produces what is known as a psychotomimetic effect. Psychotomimetic means to “mimic symptoms of psychosis.” These symptoms include delusions, hallucinations, and delirium. Psychotomimetic effects are also produced by psychedelic drugs (including psilocybin) but the mechanism of action is entirely different. 

Ketamine vs Psilocybin

Ketamine

Ketamine is classified as a dissociative anesthetic. It is a unique compound derived from phenylcyclohexyl piperidine (PCP) and has been used since the 1970s as a surgical anesthetic. 

Like psychedelics, dissociative drugs like ketamine can result in a feeling of separation from oneself, dreamlike states, sensory changes, and mystical experiences. It is the way in which these symptoms are achieved that separates the two drug classes. 

As an anesthetic, ketamine acts upon the NMDA receptor, effectively blocking communication between the pain signals in the spinal cord and the brain. Its ability to treat symptoms of depression and anxiety is less understood, but it is thought that the antagonism of the NMDA receptor also increases the activity of glutamate, a neurotransmitter critical in neural plasticity and functions related to memory and learning. 

Routes of administration for ketamine can be oral, intranasal, intramuscular, or intravenous. The time for the drug to take effect will vary depending on the dose and how it is administered. In general, however, effects are appreciable within 10-20 minutes and dissipate in under one hour. 

Psilocybin

Psilocybin is not synthesized, but rather a naturally occurring compound found in over 200 species of fungi (collectively known as “psilocybes”). Unlike ketamine, it is still federally prohibited to consume or sell the drug. However, more and more local governments are opting to decriminalize it at the state level

Interestingly, psilocybin itself has no appreciable effects. Upon ingestion, however, it is quickly converted to psilocin. It is this iteration that is responsible for its psychedelic effects. Unlike ketamine, which acts on the NMDA receptor, psilocin acts on several serotonin receptors, producing the tell-tale psychotomimetic effects. It is also thought that psilocybin indirectly increases the level of dopamine in the brain, further contributing to feelings of dissociation and euphoria. 

The effects of psilocybin typically take longer to present than ketamine, but this depends on the dose. The psychotomimetic effect will also last longer in many cases (up to 6 hours). 

Ketamine Is Effective for Many Mental Health Disorders

The use of psychedelics to treat mental health disorders is currently being studied, and psilocybin seems to be the farthest along the path to FDA approval. Early results are quite promising, and it will be exciting to see how these trials progress. 

Currently, ketamine is approved by the FDA for treatment resistant depression and acute suicidal ideation. However, established and ongoing studies support its use for a wide array of mental health disorders, including anxiety, addiction, and chronic pain. 

If you are experiencing persistent symptoms related to a mental health disorder, ketamine assisted psychotherapy may be right for you. The Crane Center is dedicated to helping our patients find hope for recovery through uniquely tailored treatment plans. Contact our office today to schedule a consultation and see how we can help.