Psychedelic Drugs and Mental Health

Psychedelic Drugs and Mental Health

Authored by Pin Ng PhD

Edited by Hugh Soames

Reviewed by Michael Por, MD

Will Psychedelic Drugs Revolutionize Mental Health Treatment?

Recent years have seen a resurgence in interest in psychedelic drugs. The spike in recreational use — there’s evidence of more than a fifty per cent increase in use of LSD over the past few years — might be a response to social and cultural factors. However, science has increasing started to research the possible benefits of drugs that have spent the last fifty years being seen as a social evil with little or no benefit.

This research suggest that psychedelics have huge potential for treating mental illness and improving mental health, and instead of protecting society from the perils of drugs, that western governments have, instead, prevented decades of research that could have had wide benefits.1

Many drugs have moved from being widely seen as acceptable to being highly illegal. At the start of the twentieth century, for example, cocaine was easily available and often recommended by medical professionals; it was famously even an ingredient in Coca-Cola. However, the repudiation of psychedelic drugs was unusual in both its speed and completeness.

60s experimentation into psychedelic drugs and mental health

Before the moral panic about psychedelic drugs, there had been about a decade of research into psychedelic substances like lysergic acid diethylamide2 (better known as LSD) and ‘magic mushrooms’. This research may have been conducted in universities and labs but, frequently, involved self-experimentation and, gradually, psychedelics moved increasingly into recreational use and became associated with the cultural revolution.

The perceived threat from psychedelics was, perhaps, personified by Timothy Leary. A one-time professor, he had been researching the use of psychedelic to treat addictions and mental health problems. However, he also took drugs with his research subjects and was known to pressure others to try psychedelic experiences. While many of his claims are being confirmed by research today, at the time they were damaged by association with him.

A mix of questionable ethics and experiments, academic jealousy and Leary’s considerable hubris meant that, when the government turned its attention to psychedelic drugs it was not just recreational use that was banned, but valid research was ended.

Leary, dubbed the ‘most dangerous man in America’ by Richard Nixon, was a firm believer in the power of psychedelics. Unfortunately, the combination of his somewhat uneven approach to academic rigor and his tendency to publicize himself meant that research into psychedelic drugs and mental health was all but stopped for the next fifty years.

New interest in psychedelic drugs and mental health

Advances in science have, however, helped to stimulate new interest and research into psychedelic drugs. Technologies that were not available in the 60s and 70s, like functional magnetic resonance imagining, or fMRI, scans show that psychedelic drugs are not purely hedonistic experiences but can have a significant and lasting impact on the brain.

Much attention is currently focused on psilocybin. A compound similar to that found in magic mushrooms, and the subject of research by Leary and others, the FDA classified it a ‘breakthrough therapy’ for depression in 2018. This classification recognized that, as a therapy, it offered advantages and showed significant promise, justifying a faster pathway to approval for therapeutic use.

While it remains illegal, this means that more and more people are experiencing trips in clinical settings and adding to a body of evidence that those trips actually have significant benefits.

Western medicine has shifted in its stance on psychedelics and approach to modern medicine. The medical community is interested in the therapeutic possibilities psychedelic treatments offer. It is possible that psychedelics could work on a variety of mental health issues.

For investors, psychedelic medicine could be a gold mine. Early-stage investors could make millions from their initial investments, similar to what happened for those that were quick to invest in cannabis.

How do psychedelics work?

Research suggests that psychedelic drugs effectively rewire the brain, some have considered the effect so profound that they have compared it to rebooting the brain.3

Although there is still much to learn about the brain, the concept of neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change, is widely accepted and understood. Essentially, the brain will adapt in response to stimuli. Learning a new skill, for example, whether it’s a mental skill like a language or a physical skill like a craft will result in new neural pathways developing. As you acquire experience those pathways develop and strengthen and help you turn that experience into expertise.

However, these pathways can be negative as well as positive. The brain cannot make a value judgment, so it is just as good at making new pathways in response to depressive thoughts or addictive behaviors as it is in learning skills. These new pathways are also remarkably resilient and even years afterwards can find themselves being reinforced; this explains why it’s relatively easy to re-learn skills you thought long-forgotten but also why relapses can happen so easily.

The psychedelic experience appears to either reset these pathways or return the brain to a fresh state, so new pathways can take precedence over the old behaviors however well ingrained they might have been.

The administration of psychedelics and mental health

Psychedelic drugs for mental health are still being researched and are not, yet, available for use outside of research studies. However, the delivery in those situations retains much of the feel of a trip in the 60s or 70s.

Psilocybin, for example, is administered in a session lasting several hours. The patient will take the drug in a comfortable environment, more like a lounge than a clinical room, and the ambience will be designed to be relaxing, from lighting to music. They will be overseen by a professional who will guide them through the experience and be on hand to quickly handle any issues including a bad trip.

The research and trials are, essentially, offering an experience that many would view as purely recreational to see what, if any medical benefits it brings. Indeed, many participants report the same experiences as recreational drug users. These commonly include a sense of detachment from their sense of self, and a freedom, or even liberation, from negative thoughts and feelings.

One suggestion is that the effect of a psychedelic is to bypass the brain’s ‘default mode network’. While the concept of the default mode network is not universally accepted, it is posited that it what creates a sense of self, both conceptually but also when considering the self in relation to past and future events and in relation to others.

In this theory, the psychedelic experience of detachment is a symptom of this network being deactivated. The positive effects are a result of the new connections that can form breaking the potentially negative connections and pathways that had become part of the default mode network.

Current research into psychedelics and mental health

Current psychedelic drugs and mental health trials have reported significant benefits from even limited use of psychedelics and suggest there might be benefits in a wide range of situations. Trials have found it to be more successful than current alternative treatments in improving symptoms of depression and addressing addiction issues.

One commonly cited study was conducted the NYU Department of Psychiatry on cancer patients. In the study those treated with a single dose of psilocybin were reported to have a 60-80% decrease in depression and anxiety compared to the control group. A follow-up study found that they were still benefiting and experiencing better mental health five years later.

Psychedelics are also reported to work on depression without the numbing effects of other drugs. While anti-depressants alleviate depression for many pressures, they also, for many, dull other emotions. Indeed, for some, the impact of these side effects outweighs the benefits. Research is ongoing, however it appears that psychedelics not only avoid these negative effects but enhance the emotional range felt by patients while still alleviating their depression.

Other areas being researched include addiction where psilocybin has found to be effective is in addressing addictive behaviors. Again, it is thought this works by helping the brain easily restructure the pathways that lead to addictive behavior. Trials that have reported success include smoking cessation and substance misuse.

A trip on prescription?

Psilocybin is not the only drug being researched with psychedelic drugs and mental health. MDMA, perhaps better known as ecstasy, has, like psilocybin, been suggested as effective in treating depression, addiction and trauma although there has been less consensus about the risks. At the moment it seems that psilocybin is the most likely to be licensed for general use.

Even after licensing, the effects of the medication mean that it’s unlikely to be regularly prescribed, certainly in the near future. And unless there is a change in the legal status and approach to drugs access and use will be tightly controlled. It is likely, however, that as the drugs and their effects become better understood and accepted, psychedelics will become an increasingly common prescription and one that has significant benefits for patients.

Depression, the illness most likely to get licensed psilocybin treatments is a costly condition. The National Institute for Health estimated it had a total cost to the economy of over $80 billion in 2000. With the current range of therapy and pharmaceutical options appearing to have reached their limits, an additional treatment option can do little harm, and if it is as successful as some of the trials suggest it won’t be long before other conditions start getting psychedelic treatment options licensed.

Tripnotherapy | Psychedelic Drugs and Mental Health

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Chairman & CEO at Remedy Wellbeing | Website | + posts

Alexander Bentley is the Chairman & CEO of Remedy Wellbeing™ as well as the creator & pioneer behind Tripnotherapy™, embracing ‘NextGen’ psychedelic bio-pharmaceuticals to treat burnout, addiction, depression, anxiety and psychological unease.

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