The therapeutic onset of traditional antidepressants is delayed by several weeks and many depressed patients fail to respond to treatment altogether. In contrast, subanesthetic ketamine can rapidly alleviate symptoms of depression within hours of a single administration, even in patients who are considered treatment-resistant. Ketamine is thought to exert these effects by restoring the integrity of neural circuits that are compromised in depression. This hypothesis stems in part from preclinical observations that ketamine can strengthen synaptic connections by increasing glutamate-mediated neurotransmission and promoting rapid neurotrophic factor release. An improved understanding of how ketamine, and other novel rapid-acting antidepressants, give rise to these processes will help foster future therapeutic innovation. Here, we review the history of antidepressant treatment advances that preceded the ketamine discovery, critically examine mechanistic hypotheses for how ketamine may exert its antidepressant effects, and discuss the impact this knowledge has had on ongoing drug discovery efforts.