Introduction: Preliminary research has indicated that recreational ketamine use may be associated with marked cognitive impairments and elevated psychopathological symptoms, although no study to date has determined how these are affected by differing frequencies of use or whether they are reversible on cessation of use. In this study we aimed to determine how variations in ketamine use and abstention from prior use affect neurocognitive function and psychological wellbeing.
Method: We assessed a total of 150 individuals: 30 frequent ketamine users, 30 infrequent ketamine users, 30 ex-ketamine users, 30 polydrug users and 30 controls who did not use illicit drugs. Cognitive tasks included spatial working memory, pattern recognition memory, the Stockings of Cambridge (a variant of the Tower of London task), simple vigilance and verbal and category fluency. Standardized questionnaires were used to assess psychological wellbeing. Hair analysis was used to verify group membership.
Results: Frequent ketamine users were impaired on spatial working memory, pattern recognition memory, Stockings of Cambridge and category fluency but exhibited preserved verbal fluency and prose recall. There were no differences in the performance of the infrequent ketamine users or ex-users compared to the other groups. Frequent users showed increased delusional, dissociative and schizotypal symptoms which were also evident to a lesser extent in infrequent and ex-users. Delusional symptoms correlated positively with the amount of ketamine used currently by the frequent users.
Conclusions: Frequent ketamine use is associated with impairments in working memory, episodic memory and aspects of executive function as well as reduced psychological wellbeing. 'Recreational' ketamine use does not appear to be associated with distinct cognitive impairments although increased levels of delusional and dissociative symptoms were observed. As no performance decrements were observed in the ex-ketamine users, it is possible that the cognitive impairments observed in the frequent ketamine group are reversible upon cessation of ketamine use, although delusional symptoms persist.