The neurobiology of depression, ketamine and rapid-acting antidepressants: Is it glutamate inhibition or activation?

Pharmacol Ther. 2018 Oct;190:148-158. doi: 10.1016/j.pharmthera.2018.05.010. Epub 2018 May 25.


The discovery of the antidepressant effects of ketamine has opened a breakthrough opportunity to develop a truly novel class of safe, effective, and rapid-acting antidepressants (RAADs). In addition, the rapid and robust biological and behavioral effects of ketamine offered a unique opportunity to utilize the drug as a tool to thoroughly investigate the neurobiology of stress and depression in animals, and to develop sensitive and reproducible biomarkers in humans. The ketamine literature over the past two decades has considerably enriched our understanding of the mechanisms underlying chronic stress, depression, and RAADs. However, considering the complexity of the pharmacokinetics and in vivo pharmacodynamics of ketamine, several questions remain unanswered and, at times, even answered questions continue to be considered controversial or at least not fully understood. The current perspective paper summarizes our understanding of the neurobiology of depression, and the mechanisms of action of ketamine and other RAADs. The review focuses on the role of glutamate neurotransmission - reviewing the history of the "glutamate inhibition" and "glutamate activation" hypotheses, proposing a synaptic connectivity model of chronic stress pathology, and describing the mechanism of action of ketamine. It will also summarize the clinical efficacy findings of putative RAADs, present relevant human biomarker findings, and discuss current challenges and future directions.

Keywords: Chronic stress; Depression; Glutamate neurotransmission; Ketamine; Nucleus accumbens; Prefrontal cortex; Rapid-acting antidepressants.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antidepressive Agents / adverse effects
  • Antidepressive Agents / pharmacology*
  • Biomarkers / metabolism
  • Depression / drug therapy*
  • Depression / physiopathology
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Drug Development / methods
  • Glutamic Acid / drug effects
  • Glutamic Acid / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Ketamine / adverse effects
  • Ketamine / pharmacology*
  • Synaptic Transmission / drug effects


  • Antidepressive Agents
  • Biomarkers
  • Glutamic Acid
  • Ketamine