Ever wish something would instantly eradicate a bad mood or a long-lasting debilitating case of the blues? Treating depression can take weeks of drugs or therapy before results are apparent. However, a new study shows that nitrous oxide – yes, laughing gas – may be effective in providing rapid relief for depression while waiting for longer acting medicine to kick in.
Laughing gas has long been a staple in dentists’ office to relax patients. It mildly sedates and sometimes creates a sense of euphoria or the giggles (hence the nickname). But the effective of nitrous oxide is considered to be short term. However, the study results show there may be longer-term benefits.
A limited study conducted by researchers at the Washington University in St. Louis compared the effects of inhaled nitrous oxide with a placebo and showed promising results. While the research team admits the study was small and requires a larger effort, it shows that laughing gas could be used to offer quick relief to people suffering from crippling depression during the oft times up to a month time period it takes for most antidepressant prescriptions to work.
In their results, which were published in the journal Biological Psychiatry on Tuesday and presented at the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology’s annual conference, the research team found that two-thirds of the patients who received the laughing gas had improvements in their depression. Conversely, only one-third of the patients reported improvement after receiving the placebo.
During the study, 20 patients who have hard-to-treat depression were treated with gas by the researchers two times, with a one-week gap between treatments. In one session, the participants were given nitrous oxide and, in the other session, they received the placebo gas. After each session, the researchers asked the patients about their symptoms of depression. They were queried two hours after receiving each gas, again 24 hours later and finally a week later.
Given the experience most people have in a dental office, it was no surprise that the laughing gas created positive effects on a short-term basis. It also was not surprising to see some improvement from a placebo on a short-term basis from people hoping to see improvement. The bigger surprise was the longer lasting results.
One day after they received the laughing gas treatment, three of the study participants reported that their symptoms of depression had almost completely disappeared. Seven others reported significant improvements in their symptoms. An additional seven participants reported mild improvement. None of the patients reported that their symptoms had gotten worse after inhaling the nitrous oxide gas.
When they received the placebo gas treatment, five patients reported mild improvement in their symptoms one day later and two claimed to have significant improvement. None reported that their symptoms had disappeared and one reported feeling worse.
Noting that the laughing gas showed better results than the placebo, Dr. Peter Nagele, an assistant professor of anesthesiology at the university’s School of Medicine, pointed out that the effect as a way of treating depression was rapid and sustained for a day in most participants. He added, “It’s kind of surprising that no one ever thought about using a drug that makes people laugh as a treatment for patients whose main symptom is that they’re so very sad.”
By Dyanne Weiss