‘Miracle cures’ in psychiatry?

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The compound Freud was describing is cocaine, which we now know is an addictive and dangerous drug that can in fact worsen depression.10 Another treatment regarded as a miracle cure in its time involved placing patients with schizophrenia into an insulin-induced coma to treat their symptoms; this therapy was used from 1933 to 1960.11 We now recognize that this practice is unacceptably dangerous.

The past is filled with cautionary tales of the enthusiastic adoption of treatments for mental illness that later turned out to be ineffective, counterproductive, dangerous, or inhumane. Yet, the long, arduous journeys our patients go through continue to weigh heavily on us. We would love to offer our patients newer, more efficacious, and longer-lasting treatments with fewer adverse effects.

Discussion: How to best evaluate miracle cures

To help quickly assess a new treatment, the following 5 categories can help guide and organize our thought process.

1. Evidence

What type of evidence do we have that a new treatment is safe and effective? Psychiatric research may be even more susceptible to a placebo effect than other medical research, particularly for illnesses with subjective symptoms, such as depression.12 Double-blinded, placebo-controlled studies, such as the IV ketamine trial conducted by Singh et al,13 are the gold standard for separating a substance’s actual biologic effect from a placebo effect. Studies that do not include a control group should not be regarded as providing scientific evidence of efficacy.

2. Mechanism

If a new compound appears to have a beneficial effect on mental health, it is important to consider the potential mechanism underlying this effect to determine if it is biologically plausible. A compound that is claimed to be a panacea for every symptom of every mental illness should be heavily scrutinized. For example, based on available research, ketamine’s long-lasting effects seem to come from 2 mechanisms14,15:

  • Activation of endogenous opioid receptors, which is also responsible for the euphoria induced by heroin and oxycodone.
  • Blockade of N-methyl-D-aspartate receptors. N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor activation is a key mechanism by which learning and memory function in the brain, and blocking these receptors may increase brain plasticity.

Continue to: Therefore, it seems plausible...

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