‘Miracle cures’ in psychiatry?

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“I take very small doses of it regularly against depression and against indigestion, and with the most brilliant success.... it is only now that I feel I am a doctor, since I have helped one patient and hope to help more.”

– Sigmund Freud (May 7, 1884)1



For a patient with a major mental illness, the road to wellness is long and uncertain. The medications commonly used to treat mood and thought disorders can take weeks to months to start providing benefits, and they carry significant risks for adverse effects, such as weight gain, sexual dysfunction, and movement disorders. Patients often have to take psychotropic medications for the rest of their lives. In addition to these downsides, there is no guarantee that these medications will provide complete or even partial relief.2,3

Recently, there has been growing excitement about new treatments that might be “miracle cures” for patients with mental illness, particularly for individuals with treatment-resistant depression (TRD). Two of these treatments—ketamine-related compounds, and hallucinogenic drugs—seem to promise therapeutic effects that are vastly different from those of other psychiatric medications: They appear to improve patients’ symptoms very quickly, and their effects may persist long after these drugs have been cleared from the body.

Intravenous ketamine is an older generic drug used in anesthesia; recently, it has been used off-label for TRD and other mental illnesses. On March 5, 2019, the FDA approved an intranasal formulation of esketamine—the S-enantiomer of ketamine—for TRD.4 Hallucinogens have also been tested in small studies and have seemingly significant effects in alleviating depression in patients with terminal illnesses5 and reducing smoking behavior in patients with tobacco use disorder.6,7

These miracle cures are becoming increasingly available to patients and continue to gain credibility among clinicians and researchers. How should we evaluate the usefulness of these new treatments? And how should we talk to our patients about them? To answer these questions, this article:

  • explores our duty to our patients, ourselves, and our colleagues
  • describes the dilemma
  • discusses ways to evaluate claims made about these new miracle cures.

Duty: Protecting and helping our patients

The physician–patient relationship is a fiduciary relationship. According to both common law and medical ethics, a physician who enters into a treatment relationship with a patient creates a bond of special trust and confidence. Such a relationship requires a physician to act in good faith and in the patient’s best interests.8 As physicians, we have a duty to evaluate the safety and efficacy of new treatments that are available for our patients, whether or not they are FDA-approved.

We should also protect our patients from the adverse consequences of relatively untested drugs. For example, ketamine and hallucinogens both produce dissociative effects, and may carry high risks for patients who have a predisposition to psychosis.9 We should protect our patients from any false hopes that might lead them to abandon their current treatment regimens due to adverse effects and imperfect results. At the same time, we also have a duty to acknowledge our patients’ suffering and to recognize that they might be desperate for new treatment options. We should remain open-minded about new treatments, and acknowledge that they might work. Finally, we have a duty to be mindful of any financial benefits that we may derive from the development, marketing, and administration of these medications.

Dilemma: The need for new treatments

This is not the first time that novel treatments in mental health have seemed to hold incredible promise. In the late 1800s, Sigmund Freud began to regularly use a compound that led him to feel “the normal euphoria of a healthy person.” He wrote that this substance produced:

…exhilaration and lasting euphoria, which does not differ in any way from the normal euphoria of a healthy person. The feeling of excitement which accompanies stimulus by alcohol is completely lacking; the characteristic urge for immediate activity which alcohol produces is also absent. One senses an increase of self-control and feels more vigorous and more capable of work; on the other hand, if one works, one misses that heightening of the mental powers which alcohol, tea, or coffee induce. One is simply normal, and soon finds it difficult to believe that one is under the influence of any drug at all.1

Continue to: The compound Freud was describing...


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