Health |Report

Psychedelics are on a trip from mind benders to mind menders

  1. Counter-culture image of harm has been hard to shift
  2. Many psychedelic drugs were termed 'of no medicinal value'
  3. Anti-depressants don't work for a third of sufferers
  4. Drug regulators showing interest on both sides of the Atlantic
  5. 'Ecstasy' could soon be approved to treat PTSD

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Angela Long

Angela Long

"Thanks Bernardo, we have your transla..."
George Engels

George Engels

"Hi Bernardo. Yep, just copy the text ..."
Bernardo Parrella

Bernardo Parrella

"Also, plan to translate this story in..."
Bernardo Parrella

Bernardo Parrella

"done deal, for the first week of june"

Hundreds of millions of people worldwide coping with debilitating mental health disorders could have access as soon as 2021 (MAPS) to a range of psychiatric treatments that scientists say could significantly improve their lives. These treatments are based on substances whose original medicinal value was eclipsed by their mainstream popularity and the ensuing decades-long crackdown by authorities: psychedelic drugs.

It’s being called the “psychedelic renaissance(Massive; NYT Magazine).

Psychedelics – particularly LSD – burst into the public eye in the 1960s on the back of an anti-establishment counter-culture opposed to conservative values and Western military ventures in Southeast Asia. The Harvard psychologist and psychedelics guru Timothy Leary urged people to “turn on, tune in and drop out.” When authorities reacted, they did so swiftly and decisively. Then-U.S. President Richard Nixon labeled Leary “the most dangerous man in the world” and endeavored to paint psychedelics as a public menace to society.

Psilocybin, LSD, and other compounds were classified under international law as substances with no medicinal value and high potential for abuse despite evidence that showed otherwise. After MDMA rose to popularity in the 1980s, authorities included it in the list of Schedule I drugs.

A new hope

But since the early 1990s, a smattering of scientists, researchers and drug policy reformers working at a handful of institutions – mostly in the UK and the U.S., but also in Brazil and the Netherlands – have been researching potential psychiatric applications for psychedelics. They say compounds like psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms), LSD, MDMA (ecstasy), and ketamine could – under strict medical supervision, and subject to further clinical trials – revolutionize how we understand and deal with mental health conditions. With depression as the leading cause of disability worldwide (WHO), and one-third of sufferers resistant to common medications, psychedelics seem to offer an unconventional source of hope.

“It’s incredibly exciting to be able to provide a new paradigm shift for psychiatry and the treatment of mental disorders which are actually becoming an epidemic in the West,” said psychedelics researcher Amanda Feilding, who’s also the director and founder of drug policy reform and research think-tank The Beckley Foundation.

Feilding, 75, has been studying psychedelics like LSD since the 1970s (Wired); she works with top universities in the UK and abroad to research psychedelics’ potential medical applications. While delighted at the growing interest in this field, she stressed toWikiTribune that there was still a lot more research to be done.

Scientists on both sides of the Atlantic are increasingly confident. Working within established scientific and medical parameters (NYT Magazine), the early yet scientifically promising results of their research will prove  the medicinal value of incorporating proscribed psychedelic drugs into psychiatric treatments for mental health conditions – and prompt even more research.

A global mental health ‘epidemic’

Mental health issues are widespread, cause long-lasting suffering, and cost developed societies billions of dollars a year. In England, one in six adults met the criteria for a common mental disorder in 2014 – for women, the number is one in five (NHS Digital). In the United States, the figures are slightly higher, with around 44 million people experiencing a mental illness in a given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Psychiatric treatments for common but devastating illnesses such as depression haven’t advanced greatly in decades, not since the development of SSRI antidepressants in the late 1980s (NYT Magazine). In March 2017, the World Health Organization said depression affects over 300 million people worldwide and was the leading cause of disability globally, having risen almost 20 percent from 2005 to 2015.

Anti-depressants are still the go-to treatment for moderate to severe depression. Although relatively effective (The Lancet), they come with adverse side effects and don’t work for roughly a third of people (NCBI) suffering from what’s known as treatment-resistant depression. Additionally, long waiting times for psychotherapy make it difficult for many people who can’t afford private healthcare to access treatment for mental health disorders (The Independent).

“It’s almost like a perfect storm,” Robin Carhart-Harris, head of psychedelic research at Imperial College London, told WikiTribuneYou have this major problem that the mainstream aren’t being able to solve, and then you have this novel treatment approach … it’s about taking the best of both worlds, if you want, taking a drug and therapy and combining them in this special way.”

Growing interest

This helps explain why drug-regulating agencies in the U.S. and the European Union have started to show serious interest in psychedelic drugs. Recently published research into the effects of psilocybin on people suffering from severe depression showed promising results. In October 2017, Carhart-Harris’s team at Imperial, alongside Feilding’s Beckley Foundation, published results from a small trial where they found that psilocybin was effective in treating treatment-resistant depression. Imperial is planning two further studies this year.

“We have shown for the first time clear changes in brain activity in depressed people treated with psilocybin after failing to respond to conventional treatments,” Carhart-Harris said at the time (Imperial). “Several of our patients described feeling ‘reset’ after the treatment… Psilocybin may be giving these individuals the temporary ‘kick start’ they need to break out of their depressive states”.

Psilocybin trials for depression are also under way in the U.S., while, separately, British start-up Compass Pathways with $13 million (NYT Magazine) in funding is planning to start a psilocybin experiment this year. It will be held in eight European countries, for a total of 400 people with treatment-resistant depression ( Financial Times, may be behind paywall).

Meanwhile in the U.S., MDMA has reached the last stage of clinical trials for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition that affected roughly 12 million Americans in 2017 (National Institute of Mental Health). Researchers in America also found ketamine to be effective at alleviating symptoms of severe depression in the short-term. A handful of private clinics in the U.S. (Business Insider) and the UK are prescribing it for off-label use to treat depression and anxiety.

The challenges

Scientists still face two main challenges. The first is raising funds to conduct costly clinical trials. These costs are usually borne by big pharmaceutical companies, who invest tens of millions of dollars in research in the hopes of developing new medicines for a profitable return. But because the licenses for psychedelics like LSD expired long ago – while others like psilocybin are found in naturally occurring magic mushrooms – the lack of exclusivity means there is little commercial incentive to bet on these drugs (NYT Magazine).

‘The biggest impact the ‘war on drugs’ has had has been the stigmatizing of these substances’ – Natalie Ginsberg

Many researchers also benefit from publicly-funded grants. But these are hard to come by for researchers studying psychedelics, according to Feilding and other researchers WikiTribune interviewed.

“We won money from the Medical Research Council for a [psilocybin] trial,” Carhart-Harris told WikiTribune. “That was quite unprecedented, as well, because in the U.S. there hasn’t been any mainstream funding for psychedelic research.” MAPS, the organization conducting the Phase 3 trials with MDMA as a potential therapy for PTSD, gets most of its funding from private investors, including over a million dollars from the cryptocurrency community (see WikiTribune’s cryptocurrency coverage).

The second, related challenge facing scientists in this field is that the majority of psychedelics remain classified under international law as Schedule I substances with no accepted medicinal value and a high potential for abuse. Although the international regulatory framework doesn’t technically forbid their research, scientists and drug policy reform advocates say it perpetuates an anti-psychedelics stigma that followed the counter-cultural revolution of the late 1960s.

“The biggest impact the ‘war on drugs’ has had has been the stigmatizing of these substances and moving us all away from any evidence-based assessments of drugs,” said Natalie Ginsberg, policy and advocacy director at the non-profit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS).

Ginsberg told WikiTribune: “I think that has had a major chilling effect and it has made so many otherwise brilliant doctors and researchers, who do otherwise trust science, completely dismiss and shut down any possibilities that these substances could be a treatment [for mental health disorders].”

From mind benders to mind menders

From the mid-1970s until the 1990s, legal research into the potential medical applications for psychedelics was “virtually impossible,” said Feilding. The moral panic that followed the counter-cultural revolution of the late 1960s in the Western world made it extremely difficult to discuss psychedelics for serious health uses.

“It’s really in the last two or three years that the big change has happened. Suddenly, psychedelics are beginning to be recognized as potentially very valuable tools by scientists and by an educated proportion of the public,” said Feilding.

As mental health is ever more an issue across the globe, psychedelics provide solid hope, their supporters argue. But the field is developing, without absolute certainties. Philip Gerrans, an Australian academic who has studied neuroscience through philosophy, told WikiTribune: “Neuroscience is probably not even where Galileo and Copernicus were with astronomy.”

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United Kingdom
George Engels is a staff reporter and producer at WikiTribune. He has a background in history and philosophy and a strong interest in international politics and security, and social affairs. His work has been published by The Sunday Times, The Camden New Journal, The West End Extra and the Islington Tribune.

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23 May 2018

16:53:56, 23 May 2018 . .‎ Ed Upright (Updated → removed uk spellings)
15:56:36, 23 May 2018 . .‎ George Engels (Updated → minor edit)

21 May 2018

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Talk for Story "Psychedelics are on a trip from mind benders to mind menders"

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  1. Rewrite

    Also, plan to translate this story in Italian: do i just copy the html and paste it in a new WP post, and then translate it, or is there a better way? Remember that a while back there was a discussion about WT translations, localization, etc.

    1. Rewrite

      Hi Bernardo. Yep, just copy the text into a new story/html and translate away. When do you reckon you could have it ready? Thanks!

      1. Rewrite

        Thanks Bernardo, we have your translation. A member who speaks Italian is doing a read over and then we will publish.

  2. Rewrite

    wonderful to know that Wikitribue is covering this important topic (and kudos to George and others for the story); I’m following these issues since a long time and particularly the launch of Pollan’s book for my own research/interest and just wrote an extensive review plenty of links, etc., it’s in Italian but hopefully still useful:

    among many resources available about that book, i would warmly recommend these two podcasts, on Tim Ferris Show and Ezra Klein (Vox Media) Show:

    1. Rewrite
        1. Rewrite

          Definitely. Have you listened to this podcast episode?

          Lucas Mesdal suggested it a few comments down and it’s super interesting.

          1. Rewrite

            will do — in the meantime, I’m halfway through Pollan’s book, and will go to his presentation next week (I live in the US southwest); I can write a short review later on here, if we want to have a follow-up on this hot topic…

              1. Rewrite
  3. Other

    Just started listening to an audio book on this very topic:
    How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics
    by Michael Pollan

    Great article!

    1. Rewrite

      Thanks David. Yeah Michael’s book is a really good overview of what’s been going on in this field. Hope you enjoy it!

  4. Rewrite

    I would recommend for you to listen to the 27th episode of “The After On Podcast”. They interview a couple who is running the largest clinical trial of psychedelics for depression treatment ever. Name of those interviewed Katya Malievskaia and George Goldsmith

  5. Other

    I think this story would be well complemented by a discussion of the ongoing debate around the efficacy and safety of conventional psychotropic drugs (particularly anti-depressants). To focus in on anti-depressants, there has been a fairly significant rise in their prescription, yet not a corresponding decrease in the prevalence or intensity of depression, and I have seen rising concern over dependence they may produce (, as well as the overall risk/benefit. I found this article: to be an interesting jumping-off point.

    1. Rewrite

      Thanks William, this is something that will be addressed. Thanks for the links.

  6. Other

    I think it would be very interesting to investigate the factors that are causing the perpetuation of the drug war. There are obviously political and economic concerns to ending this self-destructive set of policies.

    And another area of it benefits from investigation is the degree to which psychedelics can cause positive lifestyle changes that help people who do not have mental health issues, grow emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically.

    An interesting website we can explore:

    1. Rewrite

      Thanks Frank. MAPS is on the story’s list of resources. Definitely a good one. I have an interview scheduled with Mark Kleiman from NYU and will ask those questions.

      1. Rewrite

        Excellent, George… I may have another person (a mental health professional) who would be interesting to interview. I’m waiting for his permission to share his information with wiki Tribune.

        1. Rewrite
    2. Rewrite

      “Investigate the factors that are causing the perpetuation of the drug war.” This is pure political discourse. There is no rational explanation as to why alcohol and tobacco are legal even though both have been demonstrated time and time again to be lethal and damaging to society. Intense lobby and money cannot be the entire explanation since other drugs have the same potential for profits. I also think there is a cultural aspect to it. Many of the illegal drugs are relatively new for Westerners (alcohol has been consumed for thousands of years) whereas LSD was synthesized 50 years ago. Makes conservative populace concerned and anxious and it’s a great way to get votes by the political party that “adheres” to those policies. Of course it’s a bunch of gibberish. Just pure political discourse.

  7. Other

    Also, a search on micro-dosing in the main Medium app could have some useful ideas if you can get there.

  8. Other

    A prescription or regulated psychoactive substance environment would probably be much safer, that is knowing what dosage is safe, also no doubt pricy as regulated substances sometimes can be for individuals seeking to micro-dose themselves for opening their minds to an expanded set of ideas in the workplace or civilized social activities. Microdosing already has accumulated data on real and potential benefits to humans and has some interesting reporting. Also, pharmacological mind-expanding or various substances that alter human biological brain networks or consciousness have been employed treating PTSD, though much of PTSD could probably be avoided by not sending young humans to kill other humans around the earth, which is another problem. Clear evidence is available regarding various extracts of the Hemp plant(s) used by many nation states for treatments and therapies leveraging conscious and physiological tools enhancing and changing the human experience. In countries like the USA government entities such as the DEA have a budgetary reality that tends to become a reason to add natural or synthesized substances to their list of no no’s. I think it’s known as job justification, and medical sciences be dammed. The current USA’s attorneys general is one such idiot promoting outdated drug enforcement policies despite medical evidence for therapies helpful to society and individuals regarding these substances.

    1. Rewrite

      Hi Tim, thanks for your comment. Microdosing is really interesting but from what I understand it’s purpose is to promote creativity, focus etc rather than directly dealing with mental health issues like clinical depression. There’s a bunch of anecdotal evidence that suggests it works, although very little scientific research. The Beckley Foundation is currently undertaking a proper study into microdosing, and its results should be really interesting to read.

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