Will the Magic of Psychedelics Transform Psychiatry?

November 10, 2021

magine a medicine that could help people process disturbing memories, sparking behavioural changes rather than merely burying and suppressing symptoms and trauma. For the millions suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression, such remedies for their daily struggles could be on the horizon. Psychiatry is rapidly heading towards a new frontier – and it’s all thanks to psychedelics.

In an advanced phase trial published in Nature in May, patients in the US, Israel and Canada who received doses of the psychedelic stimulant MDMA, alongside care from a therapist, were more than twice as likely than the placebo group to no longer have PTSD, for which there is currently no effective medicinal treatment, months later.

The researchers concluded that the findings, which reflected those of six earlier-stage trials, cemented the treatment as a startlingly successful potential breakthrough therapy. There are now hopes that MDMA therapy could receive approval for certain treatments from US regulators by 2023, or perhaps even earlier – with psilocybin, the active ingredient of magic mushrooms, not far behind in the process. (A small study at Johns Hopkins University, published last year, suggested it could be four times more effective than traditional antidepressants.)

You could say interest in psychedelics is mushrooming. Last month, in a first for psychedelics since the war on drugs was launched in the 1970s, US federal funding was granted for a psilocybin study, to treat tobacco addiction, following pressure by lawmakers, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. This marks a jaw-dropping turnaround for hallucinogenic drugs. Even 10 years ago, they were effectively taboo in many academic fields and halls of power.

But as the intellectual rationale behind the war on drugs has become increasingly untenable, hundreds of millions of dollars have been pumped into psychedelic pharmaceutical research. “Psychedelics are the most extraordinary tools for studying the mind and brain,” says Dr David Luke, co-founding director of the psychedelic consciousness conference, Breaking Convention. “It’s a hot-button topic with around a dozen dedicated research centres at top-level universities around the world.”

Academic and scientific enthusiasm around psychedelics has been increasing amid exasperation over the lack of advancement in psychiatry. “It has not progressed as a field of medicine relative to others for decades, and many psychiatrists have been deeply frustrated,” Luke claims.

Yet there appears to be a set of long-ignored tools to treat causes rather than simply addressing symptoms, and psychedelics could do for psychiatry what the microscope did for biology, he says. “They work to treat the underlying commonalities of a range of mental illnesses and potentially prevent their occurrence, too.”

Unfounded claims that psychedelic drugs have no medical uses, as the US Congress once declared, and are fundamentally dangerous, kept research endeavours in a straitjacket. Possibly more accurately, there were concerns that the drugs prod people into becoming more rebellious.

“It’s not that psychedelics are dangerous, it’s that they give you dangerous ideas,” says Dennis McKenna, ethnopharmacologist and author. “That was the basic reason why there was such an overreaction and clampdown, because it was such a turbulent time with the Vietnam war.” Politicians rather than scientists or clinicians were in the driving seat behind systematically suppressing research, and usage.

This was all part of psychedelics’ mind-bending ride. Their use has increased under the radar, spurred on by cultural shifts in the west. Over the past decade, the recreational and spiritual use of hallucinogens has shed its taboos, following thousands of years of continued use in the Amazon, Mexico, Siberia and elsewhere.

“I realise for the first time this is the only genuine, religious experience I’ve ever had,” pop icon Sting recently said. “For me, the meaning of the universe cracked open.” He was followed more recently by Miley Cyrus and Lindsay Lohan, who have both told of their experiences attending plant medicine ceremonies.

Not long ago, UK fitness icon Joe Wicks outlined his plans to visit the Amazon to drink the hallucinogenic healing medicine ayahuasca, after his lockdown workout sessions went viral. Coldplay frontman Chris Martin has told of his “really wonderful” experience with magic mushrooms, which provided “the confirmation I needed about how I feel about the universe”. It increasingly seems that public declarations of psychedelic use are in vogue.

Read More

0 comment