Psychedelic Drugs and Mental Health: New Research and Uses

Psychedelic drugs may be associated with the hippies of the ‘60s or music festival attendees; however, these same drugs may be poised to provide positive applications for mental health issues, according to an uptick in recent research. This isn’t the first time researchers have examined psychedelic drugs for their potential treatment benefits: when LSD was discovered in the 1940s, scientists began taking a closer look at hallucinogens. Research stagnated in the 1960s when the drugs were outlawed.

If the research presented at this year’s American Psychological Association (APA) convention is any indication, the research is back in full swing – with applications ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder to anxiety to spirituality.

Applications of Psychedelic Drugs and Mental Health

MDMA and Autism

In a pioneering double-blind, randomized, place-controlled study published in Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry, researchers examined how social anxiety associated with autism was impacted by therapy coupled with MDMA, colloquially known as ecstasy. Results demonstrated that the dosage, which was coupled with mindfulness training, reduced self-reported symptoms of anxiety and, to date, was shown to meet safety standards. 

Ayahuasca and Depression & Addiction

A South American sacrament, Ayahuasca’s impact on mood and visionary experiences has been examined for applications in supporting well-being through psychological exploring and healing, as published in The Therapeutic Use of Ayahuasca. For example, many alcoholics report past trauma, family dysfunction or unacknowledged feelings, and ayahuasca is thought to be able to help patients address these issues and heal. “We found that ayahuasca also fostered an increase in generosity, spiritual connection and altruism,” Clancy Cavnar, PhD, with Núcleo de Estudos Interdisciplinares sobre Psicoativos, told the APA.

Psilocybin and Cancer

For patients with terminal cancer, grappling with depression, fear and what is known as existential distress (fear of dying) is a common challenge. Psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, has been demonstrated to dramatically reduce those conditions in two different studies published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, according to the Verge. Results were sudden. In the one study, by New York University, co-author Stephen Ross reported that 80% of patients saw a reduction in anxiety and depression as soon as the next day. Results from the other Johns Hopkins’ study were similar, with 80% of patients reporting they were still seeing benefits six months later.

Psilocybin and Depression

The connection of hallucinogens with spirituality, coupled with the ability to experience transcendence, offers patients a mechanism to feel connected to something broader, according to several studies on psilocybin mechanisms listed on the APA’s site. This transcendence also helps patients face underlying issues, often reducing depression as a result. This “reset” for the brain has been shown to have a positive impact in early trials, with 20 patients tested reporting feeling better a week after treatment, and half reporting sustained benefits five weeks later, according to a study published in Scientific Reports.

Ecstasy and PTSD

Approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for large-scale clinical trials, MDMA is showing promise as a viable option for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Approval for this series of clinical trials is the last step before potential approval as a prescription drug. Many study participants reported that the treatments of MDMA, administered by a psychiatrist, helped them cope with painful memories and manage prior alcohol or drug abuse thanks to increased clarity.

Risks and Complications

Although many studies have reported positive experiences and outcomes, psychedelic drugs can also spur “bad trips,” and were criminalized for their addictive properties. Latent mental health issues can be triggered or exacerbated by the use of psychedelic drugs, according to the BBC. Not to mention, a carefully controlled scientific trial is not to be confused with recreational (illegal) use of these drugs. All trials use pure, medical-grade drugs and provide professional guidance and support throughout the treatment process, in addition to screening out high-risk participants.

Critics, like Richard Friedman in the New York Times, are also skeptical of the validity of a blind psychedelic drug test (which many current studies have lauded for their validity) given the immediate and noticeable effect of psychedelic, as well as the potential for control groups to be influenced by carry-over effects if they first received a psychedelic drug.

Finally, so-called “microdosing,” where the drugs are administered in doses thought to be low enough to avoid harmful or addictive effects, is also unstable, Friedman cautions, given the unregulated nature and risks of taking too much.

While new research appears to have promising potential to unlock psychedelic drugs for valuable applications in mental health, more research and careful administration, is key in ensuring the benefits outweigh the risks.

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