The Resurgence of Psychedelics

Illustration by Dili Chen

Illustration by Dili Chen

As a graduate student in 1963, psychologist Bill Richards volunteered for a study at the University of Gottingen in West Germany. Little did he know that he would be ingesting psilocybin, a naturally occurring psychedelic compound found in many mushroom species. Even so, neither the researcher nor Richards would have any qualms about such an experimental procedure.
At the time, not only were psychedelics legal, they did not even stir up controversy. They were simply a part of academia. Tens of thousands were introduced to psychedelics as part of clinical studies in the early 1960s because they seemed to be promising treatments for a wide variety of mental and psychological illnesses. Thousands of studies were published, primarily on psilocybin and LSD, that indicated their usefulness in the treatment of clinical depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and anxiety. Unfortunately for these researchers, by the late 1960s, these compounds became sucked into a culture war. They became associated with youth, rebellion, and political upheaval. By the early 1970s, the War on Drugs, instigated by then-President Richard Nixon, quickly made these psychedelic drugs and other psychoactive compounds illegal. Psychedelics became classified as Schedule 1 drugs, essentially meaning the government viewed these drugs as not acceptable for medical use. Despite the comprehensive publications of the prior two decades implying the exact opposite notion, it was made nearly impossible for researchers to use psychedelics legally in their clinical trials.
However, after a generation-long hiatus, research on these wonder drugs has quietly resumed. Recent studies out of New York University and Johns Hopkins University have suggested that psilocybin, the drug Richards tried in 1963, reduces activity in areas of the brain that tend to be overactive in people suffering from depression and/or anxiety. Psilocybin, along with other psychedelics such as LSD, DMT, and mescaline, bind to 5-HT 2A receptors – which belong to the serotonin (a neurotransmitter that affects mood regulation) receptor family. There have been several studies of psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy in patients who have experienced cancer-related stress, and the results have shown increases in positivity and relief of anxiety and depression symptoms. Similar studies have shown similar positive effects in participants who were addicted to alcohol or nicotine. Psychedelics essentially disrupt the negative patterns of thinking that those suffering from depression and addiction are trapped in, and it provides a means for escape.
Aside from their possible therapeutic purposes, these psychedelics are being used by neuroscientists such as Franz Vollenweider at the University of Zurich to induce controlled bouts of psychosis in healthy brains. The ability to mimic psychosis for short periods of time in those who are of normal mental state made psychedelics very relevant to those studying schizophrenia, mania, and Parkinson’s disease. fMRI imaging of schizophrenic and healthy brains show interesting parallels; both sets of brains show that the neuronal networks involved in self-reflection and those involved with receiving attention from other people bleed into and interact with each other – a probable cause of hallucinations. Vollenweider’s study hoped to assess the ability of two anti-psychedelic drugs, buspirone (a drug prescribed for anxiety) and ergotamine (a drug prescribed for migraines), in preventing the inundation of serotonin in the brain caused by psychedelics. They gave participants psilocybin, followed by one of the two anti-psychedelic drugs. They found that the buspirone restrained hallucinations, creative thinking, and influx of memories – symptoms often caused by psychedelics. Although not blocking all the psychotic effects that were induced, such as the fear of going insane or decreased alertness, buspirone did block many of the symptoms found in the early stages of Parkinson’s and schizophrenia. Vollenweider’s group hypothesizes this blockage occurs with the chemical binding to serotonin 1A receptors, which counteract the 2A receptors that psychedelics act on.
The use of psychedelics in medical research has implicated a few other drugs in the alleviation of Schizophrenic symptoms, which is a step in the right direction for a disease that is in great need for treatments – especially in regards to negative thinking, social withdrawal, and apathy. Although it is unlikely to find one drug that will be a panacea for mental illnesses like schizophrenia, these new approaches are increasingly being embraced by mental health researchers because it allows them to better understand what their patients are experiencing in a controllable manner.
Along with the resurgence of interest in psychedelics, there has been an increase in concern over possible ethical violations in this area of research – and for good reason. In the 1950s and 60s, there were reported cases involving a lack of informed consent, and some researchers made false claims about the benefits of these substances and encouraged non-clinical use. However, the research of the last few years has proved that this area of study can conform to strict scientific and safety standards that are expected of modern medical research. Researchers in the aforementioned studies all obtained informed consent from their participants and had their protocols reviewed and approved by research ethics boards. The actual experimentation takes place in highly monitored, quiet, and comfortable health care facilities so as to minimize the risk of anxiety, fear or other adverse effect associated with a “bad” trip.
It is undeniable that a stigma of these substances still exists. If it were not for the War on Drugs, we may or may not have had a legitimate response to the growing costs of depression and anxiety today – it is hard to tell. Regardless, this renewed interest is very much warranted, as researchers are still looking for novel treatments to help those who do not benefit from currently available treatments. As with anything, it will take time to repair the misconceptions about the relative risks of these drugs, even when taken in a clinical setting. The next few years will likely re-shape our perception of these mysterious substances, and hopefully, those afflicted with mental illnesses like schizophrenia and depression will have a more promising outlook.

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