School of Medicine

Laughing Gas Can Provide Relief For Depression, Study Finds

When Laura Hely’s psychiatrist told her about a Washington University-based study related to depression, Hely didn’t hesitate to sign on to participate. After trying many medications and other treatment methods over the years to no avail, she was “desperate for anything that might help” her own condition.

And so several years ago, she agreed to spend an hour breathing in nitrous oxide, more commonly known as laughing gas, and then to be observed for another hour before heading home.

Dr. Charles Conway is a professor of psychiatry at Washington University.

At first, she didn’t notice much. But by the time the observation period ended and she went out to her car, her depression had lifted.

“I felt so good I couldn’t believe it,” Hely recalled to St. Louis on the Air. “I had no appetite for a long time before that, and I thought, ‘Oh, I’m so hungry I could eat a hamburger.’ And I don’t eat hamburgers. And I felt good for about four weeks.”

More recently, she took the opportunity to participate in the next phase of the study, undergoing the same breathing treatment once more — and again finding rapid relief lasting several weeks.

Hely wasn’t an outlier. Of the 24 people who participated in the most recent version of the study (a phase 2 clinical trial), 17 saw improvements. And those results have Dr. Charles Conway, who has long focused his research on treatment-resistant depression, feeling hopeful.

In June, the professor of psychiatry at Washington University published these findings (with a co-investigator) in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, Conway joined host Sarah Fenske for a closer look at the results and next steps. He also took questions from callers.

Listen to the discussion.