Laughing Gas Shows Promise for Treating Severe Depression


Depression is no laughing matter, but laughing gas might hold a key to depression recovery. A recent study shows that nitrous oxide, more commonly known as laughing gas, might be an effective tool in the battle on major depression.

The First Test of Its Kind

The study out of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis is thought to be the first to test the results of nitrous oxide on people with severe depression. This pilot phase involved 20 research subjects, each of whose diagnosed clinical depression had not previously responded well to traditional treatments.

The 20 participants were each given a treatment with nitrous oxide and another one with a placebo gas. The first was a mixture of half nitrous oxide and half oxygen, the same as dental patients receive, and the placebo was a mixture of oxygen and nitrogen, similar to standard air. Neither the test subjects nor the researchers knew which treatment the people were receiving.

The Encouraging Results

For each test, the patients reported the severity of their depression two hours after receiving the treatments and again the next day. While two-thirds of the people noted mild to significant improvements after breathing the nitrous oxide, only one-third felt better after breathing the placebo. That’s enough of a difference for researchers to conclude that the laughing gas did have a notable effect. Although the official research did not continue to evaluate patients past the second day, some test subjects did report that improved symptoms continued for a week or more after inhaling the gas.

The idea of treating major depression with nitrous oxide is promising because laughing gas works quickly and has few side effects. As little as two hours after the treatment, some patients reported improvements in their symptoms. The gas doesn’t linger in the body, and side effects are generally limited. Nausea and vomiting are the most common.

The Future of Laughing Gas and Depression

Researchers have plans for further tests to expand on their initial findings. These additional tests will seek to duplicate similar results among other patients with depression. The team also hopes to investigate how altering the strength of the gas might affect the results.

The research team speculates that nitrous oxide may prove useful for patients whose depression does not respond to traditional treatment. It might also help those who need quick help for their depression symptoms, such as those for whom suicide is a serious concern. Additionally, since standard depression treatments, such as SSRIs, often take around two weeks to kick in, laughing gas may work as an interim drug as patients wait for a new medication regimen to take effect.