Welcome to Ketamine Dictionary, presented by KetamineNews. Ketamine Dictionary is a free resource designed to make it easier than ever to understand medical procedures and definitions related to mental health treatment, without ever stepping foot in medical school or opening a textbook.
At KetamineNews, we love simple answers but are ever-aware that complex questions rarely have a simple answer (or else somebody would’ve answered it by now).
If you’ve been reading about the science behind ketamine as a treatment for mood and pain disorders, you’ve likely read at least a passing mention of something called the NMDA receptor. If you’re like me, you understand that it is medical technobabble and just use context clues to get as much meaning as you can out of it.
Eventually, I saw too many mentions of NMDA receptors to leave it up to the imagination. After reading into what it is, however, I found myself more confused than I was when I used nothing but context clues.
I don’t consider myself an unintelligent person. I am by no means a genius – ask any of my high school math teachers – but it more than gets under my skin when I can’t understand something that I think I should be able to. In this case, that would be the function and definition of an NMDA receptor.
What is an NMDA receptor?
This is the part where someone smarter than me would ask you to break it up into smaller parts to understand it better. Let’s try that.
Per Wikipedia, “the N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor (also known as the NMDA receptor or NMDAR) is a glutamate receptor and ion channel protein found in nerve cells. The NMDA receptor is one of three types of ionotropic glutamate receptors. The other receptors are the AMPA and kainate receptors. It is activated when glutamate and glycine (or D-serine) bind to it, and when activated it allows positively charged ions to flow through the cell membrane. The NMDA receptor is very important for controlling synaptic plasticity and memory function.”
Phew. If we were in a bad movie, this is the part where somebody would say “in English, please?”
Let me break it down into bits to see if that makes any more sense.
Glutamate receptors are “synaptic and non synaptic receptors located primarily on the membranes of neuronal and glial cells.” Glutamate is “abundant in the human body, but particularly in the nervous system and especially prominent in the human brain.”
What this means is that the NMDA receptor is vital because of its connection to glutamate, a neurotransmitter. Glutamate plays an important role in the functions of the brain like learning and memory.
The rest of that overly-long sentence ends up not being super important if we’re looking for a plain English definition.
Essentially, if you want to affect important brain functions – like memory and learning, as mentioned above – one way to do it is by affecting the NMDA receptor. This could likely explain ketamine’s therapeutic use, considering the way it influences the NMDA receptor.
Let’s try a metaphor. Imagine your cell phone just isn’t charging the way it used to. You’ve tried a dozen different chargers borrowed from friends, family, and coworkers but none of them seem to light the metaphorical spark.
Maybe the problem is not the charging cable, it’s the input of the phone itself – a quick glance at your charging port reveals it’s covered in dust. A quick trip to your local electronics store later, you’ve cleaned out the charging port and the cable now connects properly to your phone. Your device is charging again.
In this situation, the NMDA Receptor is the dusty old charging port. Your mental health struggles aren’t the result of a faulty processor (the brain), but rather are simply a chemical restraint; the things that should be charging you aren’t getting into the brain because the NMDA Receptor is not receiving how it should.
It should be noted that this is a nice enough metaphor, but that’s where the similarities begin and end. It is a thousand times more complicated than this, but hopefully, the analogy has brought you closer to a place of understanding.
New treatments like ketamine aim to correct this imbalance within the NMDA Receptor, but much research is still needed before we understand exactly why this component is so important.
With any medication or treatment option, you should always consult your primary care physician or a licensed practitioner on any questions you have about your overall care or an innovative new treatment like ketamine. If you’re interested in learning more about the clinical use of ketamine, we would encourage you to do your own research or reach out to trusted healthcare providers in your area. You can also consult free resources like Ketamine Directory to find care near you.
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