Magic mushrooms and ecstasy help to treat PTSD in clinical trials
Compared to mainstream antidepressants, psilocybin has some advantages: there is no known lethal dosage and it's considered to be a non-addictive substance.
Party drugs like magic mushrooms and ecstasy are banned in most countries around the world. Yet, a small set of researchers are now uncovering a new, therapeutic use for these psychedelics: to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Late last year, these researchers gathered at a conference of mental health professionals to share the findings of clinical trials. This article is a short history of these popular party drugs, right up to the latest research:
A short history of magic mushrooms
Psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, is amid resurrection in academic and medical circles. Mushrooms, and the related synthesised LSD, captured public attention in the West in the 1960s. Scientists were intrigued by the mind-altering effects and therapeutic capabilities of the drug, and recreational users were hooked to the mystical, spiritual and perspective-bending experiences they offered. Just when the potential of the psychedelic was being studied, though, the US Food & Drug Administration banned the substance citing concerns about toxicity and overuse and relegated it to the underground.
Psilocybin has a history of being suppressed. Archaeological surveys have found trace variants of the substance all over the world: in ancient Greece, medieval Bolivia, and the west Amazonian basin (modern-day Peru/ Ecuador). Spanish colonizers brutally clamped down on what locals called teonanácatl or the flesh of the Gods. The profound spiritual experiences that the drug elicited were directly oppositional to the biblical interpretation of God, so teonanácatl stood no chance. It was only in the 1950s, when Gordon Wasson, the vice-president of JP Morgan, tracked down a shaman in southern Mexico and experimented with the substance that it gained popularity in the US.
In the early weeks of December 2019, the findings of six clinical trials involving MDMA (which is similar to psilocybin and is also known as ecstasy, E and molly) and PTSD were presented.
PTSD is a serious mental health condition caused by traumatic events. Patients may get nightmares, relive unwanted memories of terrifying events, experience anxiety and depression. Traditionally, psychotherapy and a vast assortment of drugs are used to treat it.
In these clinical trials, one group of participants was administered MDMA along with psychotherapy, and the other group was given a placebo along with psychotherapy. The experimental group, which had been given MDMA, saw a marked improvement in their symptoms compared with the group that had received the placebo.
This is the latest development in the rapidly growing field of psychedelic-assisted therapy. Since the beginning of the century, small but rigorous studies on the chemical pathways, and therapeutic potential of the drugs have been funded by private institutions and spearheaded by mavericks, and the results have been encouraging.
A 2016 study at the Johns Hopkins University, US, administered high doses of psilocybin to end-stage cancer patients: 80% reported alleviation from existential depression and anxiety. An investigation by researchers at New York University showed similar results. Additionally, studies on the efficacy of psychedelics to reduce tobacco addiction, done at the Imperial College London, have also returned encouraging results.
How does it work?
How psilocybin affects the brain is not fully understood, but fMRI scans have shown lower activity in the amygdala, which is overactive in times of stress. Psilocybin, like current antidepressants, acts on serotonin, which is a hormone that helps nerve cells communicate with each other.
Research shows that altering serotonin levels may improve the mood and help ease the symptoms of depression, OCD and other mood disorders.
Scientists have also described the effect of psilocybin on the brain as "re-wiring". Neural networks are weakened and reconnected in novel ways—this may explain the feeling of stepping out of one’s self, revisiting incidents from the past, hallucinations and a spiritual sense of unity with the universe.
Psilocybin versus anti-depressants
Compared to mainstream antidepressants, psilocybin has some advantages: there is no known lethal dosage and it is considered to be a non-addictive substance. Current antidepressants come with disruptive side-effects, they have to be administered frequently and they can be ineffective in severe cases. More than 300 million people suffer from depression globally; psilocybin could help some of those for whom nothing else is working.
Michael Pollan, bestselling author of How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, and Rick Doblin, who is one of the people responsible for bringing some attention back to psychedelics, claim that the substance has benefits for the general population because of its mind-altering experience. So, rather than just tackling depression and other mental health issues, psychedelics may provide a general upliftment and satisfaction in the lives of people.
The trials thus far have been too small to influence policy, and the fact remains that we still do not know a lot about the functioning of these drugs. The studies described above diligently screen participants; those with a family history of serious psychotic disorders were ruled out as it increases the likelihood of having a psychotic break during the session.
Of course, there have been instances of terrifying "bad trips" where a person can be overwhelmed by frightening hallucinations and thoughts; a study has found that nearly 8% of those who had "bad trips" sought psychiatric help afterwards.
Trials, then, are in their nascent stages currently and it may be a long time before psilocybin assisted treatment will reach hospitals. Officials in the US state of Oregon approved a ballot that, if approved, they will roll out these treatments in the state this year.
We may be at a new frontier in our understanding of human consciousness and the fight against mental disorders, these initial developments give us reasons to be hopeful.
For more information, read our article on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment.
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