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Brainiac

On Second Thought: Researchers tried using ketamine to treat bipolar. But they made a huge blunder

This July 25, 2018 photo shows a vial of ketamine, which is normally stored in a locked cabinet, in Chicago. It was launched decades ago as an anesthetic for animals and people, became a potent battlefield pain reliever in Vietnam and morphed into the trippy club drug Special K. Now the chameleon drug ketamine is finding new life as an unapproved treatment for depression and suicidal behavior. (AP Photo/Teresa Crawford)
Teresa Crawford/AP
In 2015, a group of researchers from the United States published a study looking at the potential of the drug ketamine to treat people with bipolar disorder. Trouble was, the researchers made a major blunder: Three of the five studies included many of the same patients, a fact the authors failed to identify.

In 2015, a group of researchers from the United States published a study looking at the potential of the drug ketamine to treat people with bipolar disorder. For the work they bundled together previously published papers on the topic into what’s called a meta-analysis — a type of study that’s designed to sift through differences across multiple trials to get at a true effect. Trouble was, the researchers made a major blunder: Three of the five studies included many of the same patients, a fact the authors failed to identify. Double counting of results is a serious concern for scientists because it can inflate the apparent benefits (or risks) of a particular therapy. In this case, it made ketamine seem to be a “significantly effective” treatment for depression. The authors of the meta-analysis, which appeared in the Journal of Psychiatric Practice, said the error — which a pair of scientists in Sweden discovered — was inadvertent and that they are reworking their study with the correct data. In the meantime, they’ve retracted the paper.

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