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After decades of demonization and criminalization, psychedelic drugs are now on the cusp of entering mainstream psychiatry. The two drugs that are showing the most potential are psilocybin, the active compound in ‘magic mushrooms’, and MDMA, popularly known as Ecstasy or Molly. Both have been the subject of recent studies that are opening a new chapter in the treatment of anxiety, addiction and mental disorders. The story of why these beneficial substances have been prohibited for so long goes back to the counter-culture days of the 70’s and 80’s.
Psilocybin mushrooms have been an important part of native ceremonies for centuries. When used properly they promote a feeling of calm that allows one to see the world from a new perspective - opening the mind to our connections with nature and with each other. This fit perfectly with the “turn on and tune in” generation of the 70’s, but the political establishment of western societies had other ideas. It was a time of great social turmoil, and the people in power were frightened and alarmed by the counter-culture movement. They did not approve of their lifestyle and chose to curtail their freedom by making all drugs which opened their hearts and minds illegal. Mushrooms, LSD, etc., and even marijuana were buried beneath a flood of laws that made their use a serious criminal offense.
MDMA was first synthesized way back in 1912, but it was not used for anything until the late 70’s and early 80’s. At that time psychiatrists discovered that this drug was extremely helpful in therapy to enhance honest communication and introspection. Patients who were treated with it felt an overwhelming sense of love and openness. The existence of this ‘love drug’ became known to those outside of therapy, and its use by the counter-culture took off. Once again, the political and social establishment did not want people being so happy and open, so they made this drug illegal as well. What that did was to drive it underground and make something that was harmless into something that could be dangerous. The ‘Ecstasy’ that most people bought after it was made illegal was not pure MDMA, but a mixture of unsafe drugs trying to imitate that special feeling.
Drugs that helped people to feel more open were not only made illegal for use, but the prohibition was even extended to the field of scientific research. It became almost impossibleto get permission to study them. The people who controlled society had declared that these substances were evil, and thus there was no need to study them further. But some scientists persisted, and after decades of dead ends they have finally been able to explore the positive benefits of these mistakenly maligned substances. The quest to win mainstream acceptance of psychedelics took a significant leap forward when a recent study found that MDMA paired with counselling brought marked relief to patients with severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In this Phase 3 study, 67% of the participants were completely cured of PTSD, and a further 21% experienced a clinically meaningful reduction in symptoms. That is a success rate of 88% which is far greater than any other known therapy. Furthermore, the participants included patients with a wide range of causations for their PTSD: combat-related events; accidents; abuse; and sexual harm. “The unique ability of MDMA to promote compassion and understanding while calming fear, is what enables it to be so effective,” according to Dr Jennifer Mitchell, the lead author of the research.
Several studies have shown that psilocybin is also very effective for healing when paired with psychiatric counselling. Researchers at the Imperial College London tested its ability to help patients with depression, by monitoring their brain functions before and after it was used. All of the patients had previously failed to respond to conventional treatments for depression. Immediately following the treatments with psilocybin, 100% of the patients reported a decrease in depressive symptoms, including improvements in mood and relief from stress. MRI imaging showed that there was reduced activity in the areas of their brains that are associated with negative emotions, stress and fear.
Dr Robin Carhart-Harris who led the study said: “We have shown for the first time clear changes in brain activity in depressed people treated with psilocybin. It seems to be giving these individuals the temporary ‘kick start’ they need to break out of their depressive states.” Two other recent studies in the US have shown that a singledose of psilocybin can ease the anxiety and depression of people with cancer. Perhaps the most surprising result was that the benefits of this single treatment lasted at least six months for all patients, and up to four years for others. One of the participants explained it this way: “The psilocybin experience changed my thoughts about who I am in the world. I now can see myself in a less limited way, and am more open to life. It has taken me out from under a big burden of feelings from my past that I was carrying around.”
These positive results have led many countries and institutions to change their attitude toward the study of psychedelics. Three prominent universities in the US have established psychedelic research divisions: Yale, Johns Hopkins and UC Berkeley. A number of scientific studies are currently underway to see whether psychedelics can be effective in treating a wide range of conditions including depression, autism, anorexia, opioid addiction and the anxieties experienced by the terminally ill.
These researchers are proving that psilocybin, MDMA and other psychoactive chemicals can help people to feel more tolerance, understanding and empathy. They also enhance the brain’s ability to change and reorganize thought patterns. This allows people with psychological disorders to find new ways to process anxiety, depression and deeply embedded trauma. Michael Pollan, who’s best-selling book “How to Change Your Mind” has helped to destigmatize these drugs, sums it up: “There’s been a sea change in attitudes about what not long ago was considered fringe science. We’ve had 50 years of government propaganda suppressing these substances, but thanks to new research and a grass-roots movement, that narrative is changing.”