Drug Rehabilitation

Written by Craig Outhier Category: Valley News Issue: October 2013
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The notorious club drug ketamine is used to fight clinical depression at a groundbreaking Scottsdale treatment center.

The first roadside bomb was an amateurish daisy-chain job. A misfire. The round bounced harmlessly off the top of the armored vehicle’s hood and he drove on.

The next two were worse. One blew the tracks off the vehicle. The other slammed him down on his 50-cal machine gun and left him with a fair degree of brain trauma. Memory deficits. Depression. Unmanageable anxiety. By the time he returned home to San Tan Valley, Army Spc. Timothy Little had survived three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, three improvised explosive device attacks and innumerable close calls. What didn’t survive: His mental health and well-being. “The biggest thing was the PTSD,” the certified plumber says, explaining the symptoms he unsuccessfully tried to manage with Clonazepam and other drugs. “I hated leaving the house, I hated being in crowds. It was hard for me to tolerate any situation that I couldn’t control.”

For five years, Little survived on two to three hours of sleep a night. That came to a blessed halt last November. Today, Little is happy, productive and anxiety-free. He’s working again. And he has a revolutionary drug therapy to thank for it – a drug, incidentally, that is abused worldwide in dance clubs, luring users into states of disassociation so intense that some lose control of their bladders.

Valley entrepreneur Gerald Gaines is acutely aware of the stigma surrounding ketamine, or Special K, as the anesthetic is known on the street. But he also sees it as a side-effect-free salve for the estimated 15 million Americans who suffer from clinical depression – which is why he founded Depression Recovery Centers in Scottsdale last November, one of a dozen or so ketamine clinics nationwide.

“There’s still debate about how exactly [ketamine] is doing what it’s doing,” Gaines says. “But there’s no debate about what it does. And what it’s doing is growing neuron fibers that have been degraded by depression over time. And it regrows those nerve fibers in about an hour, almost tripling the size of those nerves. It’s very dramatic.” Independent studies by the Mayo Clinic, Yale University and other top research institutions support his claim.

To paraphrase the old Hair Club for Men commercial, Gaines isn’t just the clinic’s founder – he’s also a client. A sufferer of bipolar disorder since adolescence, Gaines went 30 years sans treatment, burning through three marriages while collecting a chemical engineering degree, a Harvard MBA, and a founding-ownership stake in Sprint PCS. A one-time proponent of medical marijuana, Gaines turned his attention to ketamine in the early 2000s when research demonstrated the drug – first developed as a safe, inexpensive battlefield anesthetic during the Vietnam War, and still widely used legally as a painkiller – could be used to remodel neurons.

Last November, Gaines started soliciting trial volunteers, including Little, for the newly-launched clinic, using himself as a “guinea pig” by taking the same twice-a-week regimen as the patients. “I haven’t been depressed since,” says Gaines, who has since spaced out his treatments to once every other month.

The clinical, anti-depressive application of ketamine bears little resemblance to its recreational use. Physicians administer small doses of the drug intravenously over treatment periods lasting roughly an hour, resulting in a dosage rate roughly 5,000 times more mild than that of abusers who snort it. Patients often report a mild floating sensation. “Nobody is doing this to get a buzz,” Gaines says.

But they are doing it to feel better. Each of the patients treated at the clinic at press time experienced positive outcomes, Gaines says, adding the industry standard is around 60 percent. Gaines hopes to open more clinics as the public becomes accustomed to the idea of therapeutic ketamine, but concedes the industry is in its infancy – despite an encouraging study presented at its last annual meeting, the American Psychiatric Association has yet to endorse the drug for anti-depression.

Little is hopeful widespread acceptance comes soon. “I hope people don’t look at it as a club drug,” says the veteran, who recommends ketamine to other PTSD sufferers. “That’s really selling it short.”

> Ketamine is manufactured by 26 pharmaceutical companies and is patented as an anesthetic. Thus, it can’t be marketed as an anti-depressant. 

> Gaines and other clinic operators legally prescribe the drug “off-label,” meaning for reasons other than its patented use.

> The DEA classifies ketamine as a Schedule III drug – meaning it has less “potential for abuse” than drugs like heroin and cocaine.