Despite the complicated social perspective regarding psychedelics, more research and attention is being given to the use of psychedelic substances such as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), psilocybin mushrooms, and plants such as ayahuasca to treat mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety, alcoholism and drug addiction.
Psychedelics interact with serotonin receptors in the brain and have a way of enabling people to consider new perspectives and possibilities in life. Unfortunately, the political history and existing laws in most countries make it challenging for clinicians and scientists to obtain the necessary regulatory approval for clinical trials. Research into the development of psychotherapy with the use of psychedelic drugs came to an abrupt stop in the 1960s after LSD was made illegal in the United States (US) in 1966.
Nevertheless, scientists and physicians are now giving more regard to the potential of psychedelics. Over the last two decades, more new research has been conducted after the lull of the 70’s, 80’s and ’90s. What have we found so far? Although studies have been limited, there is a common theme throughout them: though unconventional, psychedelics may be very effective in treating mental disorders; they are well tolerated by clinical populations, and they appear to have a very low possibility of dependency or adverse side effects.
“These drugs don’t appear to produce dependence. Their ability to treat a range of addictive psychiatric and existential disorders is remarkable and too interesting not to explore further.” ~ Dr. Stephen Ross, director of the Division of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse at Bellevue Hospital in New York City
Millions of people in the world suffer each year from three very common mental health conditions: alcoholism, depression and anxiety. In the US alone, about 20% of the population suffers from anxiety and/or depression. Are psychedelics a possible new treatment for these conditions?
Alcoholism and LSD
In 2012, the Journal of Psychopharmacology published results of an independent meta-analysis of several randomized controlled clinical trials of using LSD to treat alcoholism. Two Norwegians, Teri Krebs and Pål-Ørjan Johansen, both affiliated with the Department of Neuroscience at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, analyzed six trials that were carried out during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The trials included a total of 536 participants, of which a majority was enrolled in alcoholism treatment programs. The trails each used low-dose LSD and a treatment-independent, standardized assessment of alcohol misuse.
“It was rather common for patients to claim significant insights into their problems, to feel that they had been given a new lease on life, and to make a strong resolution to discontinue their drinking.”
“It was not unusual for patients following their LSD experience to become much more self-accepting, to show greater openness and accessibility, and to adopt a more positive, optimistic view of their capacities to face future problems.”
In the assessment carried out by Krebs and Johansen, LSD was found to have a beneficial effect in all trails, with about 59% of total trial participants who were administered LSD improving at follow up. The researchers also found that the result of a single-dose LSD treatment will last anywhere from 6 to 12 months.
It’s unusual for a psychiatric medication to have a positive treatment effect lasting for several months after a single dose. Krebs and Johansen suggest that repeated doses of LSD coupled with modern, evidence-based alcohol relapse prevention treatments might provide more sustained results. They also note that plant-based psychedelics such as mescaline and ayahuasca which are used by Native Americans to promote mental health and sustained sobriety, merit further investigation for alcoholism treatment. – Teri Krebs and Pål-Ørjan Johanse
Alcohol use is widely accepted and even prevalent in many western societies. In the US alone, approximately 17 million adults of 18 years or older suffered from alcohol misuse in 2012, as reported by the National Institute of Health (NIH). This excludes an additional estimate of 855,000 adolescents ages 12-17 who had an alcohol use disorder that year.
Depression, Magic Mushrooms and LSD
One of the most recent studies into the effectiveness of psychedelics as a treatment for depression was published in March 2014 in the journal Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology. A team of psychiatrists at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, examined the biochemical effects that psychedelics have on the brain and compared them to existing anti-depressants as an alternative psychotherapeutic treatment.
In its review, the team discovered that hallucinogens interact with the serotonin receptors in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, the main target of most antidepressants, and alter the serotonergic system of the brain, which is known to be implicated in anxiety and depressive disorders. The researchers identified that psychedelics are not likely to function the same way as medications, and the neurobiology of how they would produce therapeutic effects is speculative, therefore it is necessary to study these hallucinogens in more detail in order help better understand the neuropathy of depression, as well as potentially create new therapies.
“Depression causes a profound burden on society. These drugs offer at least the potential of better understanding the neurobiology of depression, and of providing novel therapeutic agents. The weight of clinical need must overcome any weight of political hesitancy.” – David Baumeister et. al., study authors
Despite the obstructive legislative policy, an increasing number of clinical studies have been conducted over the last two decades to understand the mood-altering effects of psychedelics, including one at Johns Hopkins University Medical School in 2007-2008. In this study, 36 voluntary subjects, who had little to no experience with psychedelics, were orally administered psilocybin derived naturally from certain species of mushrooms during one of two or three sessions. In the other session(s), they were administered methylphenidate, which is stimulant used to treat ADHD. The participants were screened during all sessions and evaluate during a 14-month follow-up. The researchers report:
“At the 14-month follow-up, 58% and 67%, respectively, of volunteers rated the psilocybin-occasioned experience as being among the five most personally meaningful and among the five most spiritually significant experiences of their lives; 64% indicated that the experience increased well-being or life satisfaction; 58% met criteria for having had a ‘complete’ mystical experience.”
Depression is a very common mental disorder. The US’s NIH reports that in 2012, an estimated 16 million adults aged 18 or older had at least one major depressive episode during that year, representing 6.9% of all US adults. The Center for Disease Control reported that from 2005 to 2008, more than 1 in 10 Americans ages 12 and older were taking medication for depression. Big Pharma is making millions each year from sales of anti-depressant medications, which create adverse physiological side effects as well as manic, depressive, suicidal, and homicidal impulses. Why are we not researching psychedelic compounds that could potentially have better results with fewer side effects?
Psychedelics and Anxiety Disorder
Most of the studies conducted on the effect that LSD and psilocybin have on anxiety disorders have been conducted on terminally ill patients. Similarly to the effect that hallucinogens have on depression, psychedelics seem to benefit anxiety suffers by reducing symptoms.
The most recent study on the topic was conducted by several MDs and PhDs led by Dr. Peter Gasser, a physician in Solothurn, Switzerland; the results were published in the July 2014 issue of the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. The group of doctors wanted to discover if LSD-assisted psychotherapy would be effective in treating anxiety associated with a life-threatening disease. A total of 4 psychotherapy sessions was given to 12 patients, with 2 of these sessions including LSD administration. The researchers followed up with the patients after 2 months and used a standardized State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI) to assess the reduction in the participants’ state of anxiety.
Gasser and his team found significant reductions of anxiety in patients without any acute or chronic adverse effects and that the STAI reductions were sustained for 12 months. They write:
“These results indicate that when administered safely in a methodologically rigorous medically supervised psychotherapeutic setting, LSD can reduce anxiety, suggesting that larger controlled studies are warranted.”
Similar research was completed in 2008 by Charles Grob, a psychiatrist and researcher at Harbor-U.C.L.A. Medical Center, who was administering psilocybin mushrooms to 12 end-stage cancer patients to see if it would reduce their fear of death. The study results, published in The Archives of General Psychiatry, showed that administering psilocybin to terminally ill subjects could be done safely while reducing their anxiety about their impending deaths. Grob visited with the study subjects one and three months after treatment and reported a sustained reduction in anxiety. There are other studies that are getting similar results.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) reports that anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the US, affecting 40 million adults over the age of 18. In 1999, the US bill for anxiety disorders totalled over $42 billion. It is common that someone with an anxiety disorder also suffers from depression or vice versa, and the ADAA estimates that nearly half of those diagnosed with depression are also diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Sufferers often take two, three or more different drugs on a daily basis to treat these two illnesses. Psychedelics create a new paradigm where only one treatment, potentially less costly, longer lasting, and with fewer adverse side effects, could relieve symptoms and may even address the root cause of mental illness.