Exploring the Neurobiology of Ketamine

Medically reviewed by 
Chelsea Tersavich, PA-C
Published on 
December 15, 2022
Updated on 


  • Ketamine is a fast-acting antidepressant that decreases anxiety and depression in a number of ways.
  • One way that ketamine helps treat mental health issues is by quieting a system of the brain that contributes for persistent, negative thoughts, the default mode network (DMN). Negative thoughts are a common symptom of anxiety and depression.
  • Ketamine also fuels new connections, synapses, in the brain, and allows for the regrowth of damaged ones. This may help people suffering from anxiety and depression change existing negative thought patterns.
  • When paired with support, these neurological changes can help decrease anxiety and depression symptoms.

While its primary use is as an anesthetic, ketamine is increasingly being used as a fast-acting treatment for anxiety and depression, and has been used in this manner for at least two decades. But how exactly does it affect the brain to help achieve positive mental health outcomes?

This article discusses how conditions like depression and anxiety can cause neurological issues, how ketamine works to influence the brain’s healing, and the beneficial outcomes of ketamine therapy.

Trauma and chronic stress can damage the brain and affect your thinking

Depression and anxiety can often present themselves as persistent negative thoughts. These thoughts can be caused by unresolved traumatic experiences or chronic stresses in our lives. 

While these thoughts can become overwhelming and impact our ability to live happy lives from a behavioral perspective, trauma and chronic stress can also have a negative biological effect on the brain.

When people suffer from chronic anxiety and depression, their neurochemistry changes. When doctors do brain scans, they see fewer neural connections, specifically fewer spines on neurons. Anxiety and depression are not only psychological, they are biological.

Ketamine offers relief from persistent negative thoughts

The “default mode network” (DMN) is a system of brain regions involved in memory, emotion, and our normal sense of self. It is one of the regions that is active when we are experiencing anxious or depressive thoughts, and when we are in a state of rest. 

Ketamine temporarily decreases activity in this part of the brain, providing a reprieve from the thoughts and habitual patterns that may be present normally. This offers relief from persistent negative thoughts and the chance to create new, healthier patterns in life.

A secondary outcome of this effect is that the calming of the DMN can provide unique perspectives and novel experiences as an individual's sense of self is altered. This provides opportunities for catharsis, healing, insight, and the discovery of new opportunities in one’s life.

Ketamine fuels new synaptic growth

Ketamine helps the brain produce a special protein called “brain-derived neurotrophic factor” (BDNF), which acts like a fertilizer for neuronal growth, specifically around synaptic repair and growth.

Ketamine therapy can lead to more, and potentially healthier, brain connections. This helps to heal damaged connections, and create opportunities for new, healthier ways of thinking and acting in the world. 

Ketamine and the future of mental healthcare

Ketamine is a fascinating medicine that works on our brains in many different ways, which may explain why it seems to work so well for so many different people.

With research showing its ability to promote the creation of new, healthy neural connections and repair damaged areas – ketamine can be a powerful tool for managing anxiety, depression, and other major mental health conditions.


This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. If you are in a life-threatening situation, call the National Suicide Prevention Line at +1 (800) 273-8255, call 911, or go to the nearest emergency room.

Important FDA Safety Information

Ketamine is not FDA-approved for the treatment of depression or anxiety. Learn more about off-label uses here.

Side effects of ketamine treatment may include: altered sense of time, anxiety, blurred vision, diminished ability to see/hear/feel, dry mouth, elevated blood pressure or heart rate, elevated intraocular or intracranial pressure, excitability, loss of appetite, mental confusion, nausea/vomiting, nystagmus (rapid eye movements), restlessness, slurred speech, synesthesia (a mingling of the senses).

Do not proceed with ketamine treatment if any of the following apply to you:

  • Allergic to ketamine
  • Symptoms of psychosis or mania
  • Uncontrolled high blood pressure
  • CHF or other serious heart problem
  • Severe breathing problem
  • History of elevated intraocular or intracranial pressure
  • History of hyperthyroidism
  • Other serious medical illness
  • Pregnant, nursing, or trying to become pregnant

Ketamine has been reported to produce issues including, but not limited to, those listed below. However, lasting adverse side-effects are rare when medical protocols are carefully followed.

While ketamine has not been shown to be physically addictive, it has been shown to cause moderate psychological dependency in some recreational users.

  • In rare cases, frequent, heavy users have reported increased frequency of urination, urinary incontinence, pain urinating, passing blood in the urine, or reduced bladder size
  • Ketamine may worsen problems in people with schizophrenia, severe personality disorders, or other serious mental disorders.
  • Users with a personal or family history of psychosis should be cautious using any psychoactive substance, including ketamine, and discuss potential risks with your MindBloom® clinician before proceeding with treatment.
  • The dissociative effects of ketamine may increase patient vulnerability and the risk of accidents.

To promote positive outcomes and ensure safety, follow these ketamine treatment guidelines:

  • Do not operate a vehicle (e.g., car, motorcycle, bicycle) or heavy machinery following treatment until you’ve had a full night of sleep
  • Refrain from taking benzodiazepines or stimulants for 24 hours prior to treatment
  • Continue to take antihypertensive medication as prescribed
  • Avoid hangovers or alcohol intake
  • Refrain from consuming solid foods within 3 hours prior to treatment and liquids within 1 hour prior to treatment
  • Ketamine treatment should never be conducted without a monitor present to ensure your safety

Take Control of Your Mental Health

Taking control of your mental health is possible, find out it ketamine treatment can help you.

Explore MindbloomExplore Mindbloom