Story at a glance

  • 24 patients with severe depression that did not respond to antidepressants were treated with nitrous oxide.
  • Researchers found that 17 patients experienced an improvement in their depressive symptoms with both the 25 percent and 50 percent nitrous oxide mixtures.
  • The study found that 11 participants saw an improvement in more than half of their symptoms and eight were considered to be in remission.

The laughing gas most associated with providing pain relief at the dentist’s office has shown promise in improving the symptoms of people with treatment-resistant depression. 

Researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the University of Chicago conducted a small phase 2 clinical trial in which 24 patients with severe depression that did not respond to antidepressants were treated with nitrous oxide. 


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The treatment involved giving participants three treatments spaced about one month apart. In one session, patients breathed gas that was half nitrous oxide and half oxygen for one hour. The second treatment involved gas that was just 25 percent nitrous oxide, and the third, the placebo, involved breathing only oxygen. Twenty participants completed all of the study’s treatments and follow-up exams. 

Researchers found that 17 patients experienced an improvement in their depressive symptoms with both the 25 percent and 50 percent nitrous oxide mixtures. The 50 percent dose appeared to have a greater antidepressant effect two weeks following treatment, while the 25 percent dose produced fewer side effects, such as headache, lightheadedness and nausea. 

The study found that 11 participants saw an improvement in more than half of their symptoms and eight were considered to be in remission. 

“A large percentage of patients don’t respond to standard antidepressant therapies -- the patients in this study had failed an average of 4.5 antidepressant trials -- and it’s very important to find therapies to help these patients,” Charles Conway, a professor of psychiatry at Washington University and co-author of the study, said in a release

“That we saw rapid improvements in many such patients in the study suggests nitrous oxide may help people with really severe, resistant depression,” he said. 

The small study was published in the journal Science Translational Medicine


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Published on Jun 11, 2021