Antidepressant Efficacy and Tolerability of Ketamine and Esketamine: A Critical Review

CNS Drugs. 2018 May;32(5):411-420. doi: 10.1007/s40263-018-0519-3.


Ketamine and its enantiomer S-ketamine (esketamine) are promising candidates to produce a rapid-onset antidepressant effect in treatment-resistant depression. Ketamine causes continued blockade of the glutamate N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor, though this might not primarily mediate the antidepressant effect. Alternative hypotheses include selectivity for the NMDA receptor subtype containing the NMDA receptor subunit 2B (NR2B), inhibition of the phosphorylation of the eukaryotic elongation factor 2 (eEF2) kinase, increased expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and tropomyosin receptor kinase B (TrKB), and activation of the mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) signaling pathway, alongside other independent actions attributed to the ketamine metabolism to R-hydroxynorketamine (R-HNK). The enantiomer S-ketamine (esketamine) displays approximately fourfold greater affinity for the glutamate NMDA receptor in vitro than R-ketamine. Proof-of-concept single-dose and repeat-dose studies with intravenous ketamine show a significant antidepressant and probably antisuicidal effect in the short term, with response rates over 60% as early as 4.5 h after a single dose, with a sustained effect after 24 h, and over 40% after 7 days. This response can be further sustained over several weeks with repeated doses (two to three doses per week). Tolerability seems acceptable in the short term, with transient elevation of blood pressure and mild and transient dissociative and psychotomimetic effects. Intranasal esketamine has shown a comparable antidepressant effect, which has resulted in the US FDA granting the drug a "breakthrough therapy" designation, and theoretically it may offer an improved tolerability profile. However, major concerns remain regarding an effective protocol to maintain the clinical antidepressant effect of ketamine seen with acute administration and the safety of ketamine and esketamine in the long term, specifically related to potential neurocognitive and urologic toxicity, together with the potential induction of substance use disorders. Ketamine and esketamine are not currently approved treatments for depression, but the clinical use of ketamine is increasing in a variety of practice settings internationally.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antidepressive Agents / adverse effects*
  • Antidepressive Agents / pharmacology
  • Antidepressive Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Humans
  • Ketamine / adverse effects*
  • Ketamine / pharmacology
  • Ketamine / therapeutic use*


  • Antidepressive Agents
  • Esketamine
  • Ketamine