BY: MIROSLAV TOMOSKI
It may still be a few years before daytime advertising tells us to ask our doctors about shrooms, but a team of scientists in the UK is trying to prove that psychedelics can do much more than turn a three-day music festival into a life altering spiritual discovery.
Among several other pioneering efforts in psychedelic science, the Beckley Foundation has most recently studied the effects of psilocybin (the chemical found in magic mushrooms) as a remedy for depression. The participants of the study had suffered treatment-resistant depression on average for 18 years, having already tried at least two conventional treatment options. The tests included two doses of psilocybin in conjunction with professional psychological support before, during and after treatment and the results were quite promising.
“Psilocybin is different from traditional antidepressants because it is not intended to work in isolation,” says Amanda Feilding, the Founder and Director of the Beckley Foundation, a team of researchers who have discovered that when the substance is paired with therapy it can work as a highly effective treatment.
“It is, specifically, psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy that has the potential to help people with depression,” Amanda explains, “rather than regular, consistent doses of medication; as with a course of antidepressants.”
The effects of psychedelic assisted therapy as a treatment were also found to last significantly longer than prescribed antidepressants. Two doses were enough to last the patients up to three months without another treatment, whereas prescribed medication has to be taken much more frequently – sometimes even daily.
According to Amanda, antidepressants can take away the symptoms without addressing the underlying cause of depression; in the same way that over-the-counter flu medicine can stop a runny nose, without actually fighting the virus. The problem with that kind of treatment is that the symptoms of depression are not a minor nuisance like the sniffles. Depression is a far more complex illness and when the only solution available is a daily dose of temporary relief the trade-off can be addiction.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) America consumes 75 percent of the world’s prescription drugs, with only 3.9 percent of those drugs being obtained from a dealer or a stranger. The United States has also been identified as one of the most depressed countries in the world, though alarmingly few studies have attempted to find a link between depression and the epidemic of what is considered non-medical drug use.
Nearly all of the reasons provided by NIDA for non-medical prescription drug use are that they are easily accessible and say nothing of their addictive qualities. Even the Centers for Disease Control’s guidelines for preventing prescription drug abuse mostly encourage safe use and limited access to these drugs. But this doesn’t explain why they are being taken.
On the other hand, Amanda claims that, “psychedelics have a very low potential for addiction and abuse, as demonstrated both in animal studies and patterns of recreational use by humans.”
Even NIDA has found that most psychedelics are not addictive, but insist that frequent use can result in a higher tolerance. NIDA has also claimed that the side-effects can be extremely dangerous, though the Beckley Foundation has found minimal side-effects in their work with psilocybin.
“In our study, the side-effects involved transient headaches, anxiety, muddled thoughts and nausea,” Amanda said, revealing that her team found, “no long-lasting side-effects.”
In comparison, a widely prescribed antidepressant like Zoloft can have much of the same effects, but can also cause irregular heartbeats, memory loss, seizures and breathing difficulties.
Unlike prescription drugs, psychedelics have a potential to address the root cause of depression by disrupting something called the Default Mode Network (DMN). The DMN is the part of the brain that is associated with our thoughts about the past and future, as well as our sense of self.
According to Amanda, “It is exactly this network that is hyperactive in depression, therefore dampening its activity and destabilising its connectivity would be the mechanism behind the anti-depressive effects of psychedelics.”
While making the brain more chaotic may sound counter-intuitive to treating depression, it allows our minds to break free from the rigid patterns that can cause the self-destructive thoughts of depression. As psychedelics loosen the rigidity of these networks they allow the brain to make connections it otherwise wouldn’t.
“Psychedelics reduce the degree of integrity and stability within brain networks,” Amanda explains, “while at the same time facilitating the connectivity between the networks.”
Another major contributor to the effectiveness of this psychedelic treatment is the psychotherapy that accompanies it.
“The psychedelic experience, by itself, is profound, but I don’t think psychedelics by themselves would have such lasting effects.” Amanda warns, “There is always a chance of a bad trip, a supportive setting is very important.”
With the help of psychotherapy, the experience of taking psychedelics can be contextualized and applied to a specific patient, allowing the positive effects to continue long after the trip is over. In cases where a trip is totally unsupervised, psychedelics could be the worst possible option for someone suffering depression. Even for recreational users, heightened senses could mean that a certain song, a place or the company you keep could be the difference between spiritual awakening and an inescapable nightmare.
As brain imaging technology improves, the Beckley Foundation also aims to gain a better understanding of our consciousness; going beyond depression to address the ways in which various substances can affect our thought processes.
Their most recent study with LSD produced images of the brain lighting up like wildfire, demonstrating increased blood flow to the brain and heightened senses. In addition to allowing all the colours of the world to explode in front of you in glorious harmony, the Foundations studies with LSD and psilocybin have found that the psychedelics also affect our perception of consciousness.
“So far most of what we know is what happens in the brain during rest. It would be very interesting to see the effects of psychedelics on different tasks and activities.”
An upcoming study by the foundation intends to examine whether LSD can affect creativity and intuitive decision making by having participants play an ancient chess-like game called GO.
Other studies already under way at Johns Hopkins University and the University of New Mexico are using psilocybin to help participants quit smoking and LSD to fight alcohol addiction.
As any good scientist, Amanda insists that more studies need to be conducted before anything definitive can be said, but the results of this first tests are an encouraging start to the search for a better way to treat the millions who suffer from depression.
The only obstacle, Amanda points out, is more funding and faith in psychedelics, “there is still a lot of stigma associated with these substances, not to mention the regulatory jungle one has to go through to get the study going,” but with the encouraging results her team have produced and a growing number of psychiatrists eager to see more, Amanda seems optimistic for the future. “The field of psychedelic science is still at its infancy. We are just scratching the surface of what we can find.”