Laughing gas offers some people rapid relief from chronic depression

Nitrous oxide ("laughing gas") may offer significant relief from the symptoms of treatment-resistant depression, according to a new study from the Washington University School of Medicine and the University of Chicago. An hour spent inhaling a mixture of laughing gas and oxygen resulted in rapid improvements among patients who didn't find relief in traditional antidepressant treatments.

Treatment-resistant depression is exactly what it sounds like: chronic depression that isn't alleviated by the traditional treatments used to manage the condition. According to the study, the participants in this research didn't get relief from an average of 4.5 antidepressants. However, many of these same patients experienced 'rapid improvements' in their condition with the use of nitrous oxide.

Traditional antidepressants like SSRIs take weeks before improvements are seen — assuming they help at all. Many people do not get relief from antidepressants or experience major side effects that result in the patient stopping the drug. Unlike these drugs, which focus on the brain's serotonin and norepinephrine receptors, laughing gas impacts the NMDA glutamate receptors.

A total of 24 patients were involved in this new trial, which found that lower doses of nitrous oxide were still able to reduce depression symptoms in some participants. The lowest dose had fewer side effects, but the higher dose offered longer relief from depression symptoms after two weeks.

More than half of the participants in this study experienced 'significant' improvements, while 40-percent of them were considered to be in remission from clinical depression after an hour of breathing the gas mixture. Ketamine, which also works on the NMDA glutamate receptors, has also been found to rapidly reduce symptoms in treatment-resistant depression.