A flurry of research is looking past the stigmas on psychedelics to investigate whether some perception-altering compounds might be useful in the treatment of depression, PTSD, anxiety and even addiction.
NEW YORK — Research into mind-and perception-altering drugs flourished in the 1950s, then floundered amid an atmosphere of demonization and illegalization in the following decades, particularly under the Nixon and Reagan administrations.
Yet researchers are taking up the cause again, exploring the possibility that psychedelic compounds might effectively treat afflictions including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction and anxiety — much the same as their peers set out to do decades ago.
From Imperial College London to John Hopkins University in Baltimore and New York University, there are murmurs of a renaissance in psychedelic research and thought.
In 2006, Roland Griffiths, a psychopharmacologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and a team of researchers published a groundbreaking article in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, “Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance.” The paper concludes that, “When administered under supportive conditions, psilocybin occasioned experiences similar to spontaneously occurring mystical experiences.” Two-thirds of those involved in the sessions described them as being among the most meaningful experiences of their lives.
Griffiths’s lab pressed ahead with their work in a 2014 study on the possibility of treating nicotine addiction with psilocybin, the psychedelic component of “magic mushrooms.” Participants had three psilocybin sessions and three cognitive-behavioral therapy sessions to diminish cravings. Eighty percent of those who received the psilocybin treatments abstained from nicotine for over six months, while less than 7 percent of those who received traditional nicotine-replacement therapy were successful for more than six months. Those who reported a “mystical experience” had the most success in breaking their addiction.
In an interview with the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS, Griffiths described the “mystical experience” as a “sense of the interconnectedness of all things – a sense of unity. That sense of unity is often accompanied by a sense of sacredness, a sense of openheartedness or love, and a noetic quality suggesting that this experience is more real than everyday waking consciousness.”
Across the Atlantic, a 2010 study conducted at Imperial College London also investigated the effects of psilocybin in treating anxiety, depression and PTSD. One study participant described his experience following a session:
“I simply don’t have the words to describe the experience but I can say that the usual self-narration that we have vanished completely. It was replaced by a sense of beautiful chaos, a landscape of unimaginable color and beauty. It was as if daily reality was entirely fake, a bizarre dream, and what I was experiencing now was the real thing. I began to see that all my concerns about daily living were irrelevant, that they were a result of a spiral into the inconsequential. I also felt that I was learning without being taught, that intuition was being fed. Fleeting feelings from my past came back, memories too, both of which seemed long forgotten.
Although it’s only days yet, the results are amazing. I feel more confident and calm than I have in such a long time. My outlook has changed significantly too. I am more aware now that it is pointless to get wrapped up in endless negativity. I feel as if I have seen a much clearer picture of which this life is just a tiny part, so it seems ludicrous to worry so much about it. Another side of this, is I feel like I’ve had a second chance, like a survivor, someone who wants to live for the day, for the experience. I feel like I can enjoy things the way I used to, without the cynicism, without the aggression. At its most basic, I feel like I used to before depression.”
The demonization of the ‘mystical experience’
Considering the nature of post-usage calm reported by many participants and Griffiths’s own definition of a “mystical experience,” it may be difficult to understand why there was such an effort to put an end to research in this field. Griffiths told The New Yorker earlier this year that it’s precisely this sense of clarity and understanding that led to the demonization of psychedelics:
“There is such a sense of authority that comes out of the primary mystical experience that it can be threatening to existing hierarchical structures. We ended up demonizing these compounds. Can you think of another area of science regarded as dangerous and taboo that all research gets shut down for decades? It’s unprecedented in modern science.”
Modern studies on psychedelics emerged in the early 1950s, when researchers studied the effects of LSD (commonly known as “acid”), MDMA (sometimes known on the street as “ecstasy” or “x”), and psilocybin. Researchers investigated the possibility of treating alcoholics with LSD, hoping the experience would allow for self-analysis and a change in behavior.
However, scientific inquiry into this growing field slowed to a virtual halt through the 1960s and 1970s amid an increasingly hostile political climate toward the use of psychedelics. As psychedelic use increased from the 1950s the public began to deal with cases of “bad trips,” in which individuals felt negative effects from ingesting high doses of psychedelics or from ingesting psychedelics without being fully prepared for the experience.
Though experts agree that psychedelics carry a low or nonexistent risk for addiction, they can give rise to erratic behavior that can result in injury or death.
“Even in this study, where we greatly controlled conditions to minimize adverse effects, about a third of subjects reported significant fear, with some also reporting transient feelings of paranoia,” Roland Griffiths told John Hopkins of the 2006 study. “Under unmonitored conditions, it’s not hard to imagine those emotions escalating to panic and dangerous behavior.”
President Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act in 1970, placing the majority of psychedelics under the U.S. government’s restrictive Schedule I category, meaning they have “significant potential for abuse and dependence” and bear “no recognized medicinal value.” By the time Ronald Reagan’s “War on Drugs” arrived in the 1980s, recreational and medicinal use of psychedelics was banned around the globe. And today, psychedelics and cannabis remain classed under a more restrictive category than cocaine or methamphetamine.
Psychedelic research continued in small settings through the 1990s, but the field has still been heavily stigmatized by past propaganda and restrictive laws. Despite the taboo surrounding this field of study, it is growing at a rate not seen since the 1950s. Researchers and recreational users are reemerging from the shadows to proudly advertise their support of psychedelic research and therapy.
A renaissance on the horizon
One of the top events for psychedelic researchers, scientists, advocates, and users is the annual Horizons Psychedelic Conference in New York. Now in its ninth year, the festival has grown to a two-day event hosting researchers from universities in the U.S., Europe and South America, as well as psychedelic activists and advocates.
Among the speakers at the Horizons Conference earlier this month were Rick Doblin, founder and executive director of MAPS; Michael Bogenschutz, professor of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine; Gabrielle Agin-Liebes, Co-Investigator, NYU Qualitative Study on Cancer related anxiety and psilocybin; Frederick Barrett, faculty member in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine; and Robin Carhart-Harris, research associate at Imperial College London.
Carhart-Harris managed the Imperial College brain imaging study for the last six years, examining the brain activity of individuals suffering from depression during psilocybin sessions. In order to understand how psilocybin creates its effects and how those effects alter brain activity the team worked with specialists in the mathematical modeling of brain networks.
“When we looked at our initial data with psilocybin we saw very clear overlaps between how psilocybin was working in the brain and how other effective depression treatments were working in the brain,” Carhart-Harris told MintPress News.
This data, combined with accounts from patients, convinced his team that psilocybin might be useful in treating depression. “Volunteers were saying they felt better, they were no longer consumed by the mundane, with day-to-day chores,” Carhart-Harris said. “They felt lighter, more positive, more optimistic.”
Carhart-Harris and his team discovered that under a dose of psilocybin the brain’s “default mode network,” connected to “high-level thinking” in humans, became chaotic and disorganized, specifically in the area of the brain which is believed to be linked to sense of self. Carhart-Harris spoke about an increased level of entropy in the more primitive networks of the brain, indicating a higher number of potential brain states available to volunteers while under psilocybin. What this means remains to be seen, but Carhart-Harris says future studies might also look at how dimethyltryptamine works in the brain.
DMT is the active ingredient in ayahuasca, a medicinal brew made with the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and other plants containing DMT. Certain native Amazon peoples have used the brew to enter into a psychedelic state for generations. First introduced to the West in the 1950s, ayahuasca has since inspired a booming tourism industry and even an underground culture created around the thirst for a night of healing.
Draulio Barros de Araujo, professor of neuroscience at the Brain Institute in Natal, Brazil, is part of the team leading research into the possible treatment of depression using ayahuasca, which the U.S. classes as a Schedule I drug. Araujo spoke at the Horizons conference regarding theories that the ayahuasca trance and healing experiences that are typically reported might be helpful in treating individuals with treatment-resistant major depressive disorders.
Another area where psilocybin research is proving valuable is the possible treatment of cancer-related anxiety. Starting in 2009, the NYU School of Medicine has studied the effects of combining psilocybin sessions with psychotherapy to treat anxiety in cancer patients. Gabrielle Agin-Liebes has been conducting clinical treatment research with psilocybin at NYUSoM since 2012. She was also co-investigator in a qualitative interview study, which sought to subjectively describe the experiences of participants.
At the Horizons conference Agin-Liebes shared a short film highlighting the experiences of three of the participants (viewers were asked not to share photos, recordings or transcripts of the short film). Each person describes feelings of joy, terror and confusion, but ultimately healing, forgiveness and love. “We wanted to understand their process of meaning-making,” Agin-Liebes told MintPress.
When it comes to healing addiction and trauma, psilocybin is not the only alternative to standard psychotropic drugs. MDMA has also been studied for its many potential benefits. In 2012, MAPS released a long-term study on the benefits of MDMA in the treatment of PTSD. The average time between the final experimental treatment session and the follow-up data collection was 3-and-a-half years.
MAPS founder Rick Doblin discussed the organization’s efforts to complete an international series of studies exploring the risks and benefits of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy as a treatment for chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD.
As recently as April 2014, researchers with the University Of Connecticut’s School Of Pharmacy found that MDMA-assisted psychotherapy could be useful in treating PTSD. Doblin is working to get approval from the FDA for MDMA treatments by 2021.
Yet obtaining approval for the therapeutic use of MDMA requires a lengthy process and several bureaucratic hurdles. If MDMA succeeds through the various phases of research, MAPS will still be required to submit a New Drug Application to the FDA. From there, the FDA will review the application, determine how to label the product, and inspect the manufacturing facility. The FDA will be examining not only the production of MDMA but also the therapy protocols proposed and tested by MAPS during clinical trials. Finally, the DEA will have to adjust the Schedule I status to a lower status which recognizes the drug’s medicinal benefits.
Another hurdle in furthering psychedelic research is acquiring funding. From the early 1950s to the early 1970s, the U.S. government funded millions of dollars worth of research into LSD, including the CIA’s infamous MK Ultra program, which sometimes tested LSD on unwitting participants and investigated the possibility of using the drug as a “truth serum” against spies.
When psychedelics were relegated to Schedule I status in 1971, the majority of studies were ceased and funding was not readily available. In the decades since, MAPS has become an influential source of funding for researchers seeking to study psychedelics. Other institutions such as the Heffter Research Institute and the Beckley Foundation have stepped in to provide private funding for psychedelic research.
‘This is really becoming a story of science’
Beyond the medicinal applications, psychedelics are also well known for their ability to induce life-altering experiences, as with Roland Griffiths’s “mystical experience.” Ingesting LSD or psilocybin allows for deep introspection in which individuals might reassess and make radical decisions about how they live their lives.
Griffiths and his team at John Hopkins University School of Medicine found that the experiences gained through psychedelic usage might be essential to not only treating addiction and depression but to fundamentally rethinking how we live. Griffiths told MAPS: “I believe that the experience of unity is of key importance to understanding the potential existential shifts that people can undergo after having these kinds of experiences.“
Dr. Frederick Barrett is a faculty member Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. He received training in the behavioral pharmacology of classic hallucinogens as a postdoctoral fellow under the mentorship of Griffiths. With Griffiths, Barrett worked for two years on a study of how meditation affects the brain. Barrett has also studied cognitive neuroscience of music and has examined the role music plays in evoking spiritual experiences in the brain. At the Horizons Conference, Barrett gave a talk on “Psilocybin, Meditation, Mystical Experiences, and the Brain.”
“I have always had an interest in studying altered states of consciousness, and studying emotions and emotion processing in the brain,” Barrett told MintPress. “I have played music most of my life and have always approached music from the perspective of its value and power in harnessing an emotional feelings and helping us regulate our emotions and express our emotions.”
Barrett believes the shift toward psychedelic treatments will come as more people look for alternatives to treating conditions such as addiction. He told MintPress:
“Over 50 percent who receive their initial treatment for meditation do not respond, so that leads to a second or a third treatment. And then you have maybe 15 percent of individuals who are deemed treatment-resistant for depression. This is a real challenge in the field. The same is true for addiction.”
As the number of studies on psychedelics rises, the size and scope are expanding as well. The more studies conducted under rigorous scientific conditions will increase the likelihood of psychedelic medicines available by prescription. Although Barrett cautions that “we need to do more studies, more critical investigations, more comprehensive investigations,” he says he does believe the tide is turning in favor of psychedelic treatments.
“I think people are frustrated that we can’t find effective ways to treat people. At the same time, because studies with hallucinogens are being done at such reputable institutions and with such care and with open mindedness, that this is really becoming a story of science where in the past it was a story of politics or culture wars. I think we are moving past that.”
Experts urge defined conditions, careful preparation and a competent guide
Amid the revival of psychedelic research and inevitable recreational use, most researchers agree that a relaxed mindset, subdued environment, and competent guide are critical to unleashing the positive, healing potential of psychedelics and minimizing negative effects like fear or nervousness.
”Under very defined conditions, with careful preparation, you can safely and fairly reliably occasion what’s called a primary mystical experience that may lead to positive changes in a person,” Roland Griffiths told John Hopkins.
Likewise, Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris recommends street users exercise caution:
“You can be fooled sometimes if you only self-experiment. If someone is suffering from depression and wants to give it a go but does not want to do the study, you should have a guide, with the proper setting, and the right time to integrate the experience and making sense of it. That’s difficult to do without the right professional support. From a professional point of view, that’s not something I can easily endorse because I see the importance of having good psychiatrists and psychotherapists around to study.”
Indeed, one of the reasons many of the current studies on psychedelics are not reporting significant negative or frightening experiences among participants may be due to the rigorous screening process used to select volunteers. Every volunteer is carefully screened, then guided through the experience with therapists at their side. Another factor is that low doses are often administered to participants, and in purer forms than are often bought and sold on the street.
While government agencies are slow to promote the use of psychedelics, the studies from NYU and John Hopkins University indicate that these compounds have the potential to unlock powerfully healing experiences and possibly even allow people to break free from the shackles of depression and addiction.
“It seems to be true that there is some innate wisdom to the way these experiences play out,” Frederick Barrett said to MintPress. “With contemplation, with reflection, with integration people can work with these experiences and have some true growth.”