Doctors Again Dabbling in Psychedelic Drugs

Doctors Again Dabbling in Psychedelic Drugs

By Katie Drummond
April 12, 2010

Recent studies, combined with technological innovations to improve patient safety, are offering compelling evidence that modern medicine should reconsider the use of hallucinogenic drugs in the treatment of several psychiatric disorders.

A handful of elite research institutions, including Johns Hopkins Medical Center, Harvard and New York University, are conducting tests on the potential for hallucinogens — largely taboo among the medical community since the 1960s — to offer beneficial, long-term changes to an individual’s brain chemistry.

Most of the current studies are concentrating on psilocybin, a key ingredient in the recreational hallucinogen known as “magic mushrooms.”

During one small experiment at Johns Hopkins, behavioral biologists doled out psilocybin to 36 patients with no known mental or physical health problems, to see how the drug would affect their mental health.

Neither the patients nor the doctors knew which participants had been administered the hallucinogen. Each patient was given psilocybin during at least one of three sessions. During the other sessions, they were given controls such as Ritalin and caffeine.

Two months after the experiment, 64 percent of the patients reported improved emotional well-being, and 58 percent ranked it as one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives, on a list that also included milestones like marriage and birth of a child.

Experiences with Ritalin only made the list of top five most meaningful experiences for 8 percent of participants.

Now that psilocybin has been vetted on healthy patients, the same doctors are offering it to patients struggling with anxiety and depression due to a cancer diagnosis. So far, the results have been exceedingly positive.

“It was a whole personality shift for me,” Clark Martin, one of the cancer patients, told The New York Times. “I wasn’t any longer attached to my performance and trying to control things. I could see that the really good things in life will happen if you just show up and share your natural enthusiasms with people. You have a feeling of attunement with other people.”

The renewed interest in hallucinogens is due largely to advances in medicine, and with tight restrictions that make the studies safer than they were 50 years ago.

Most important are brain scans, which can monitor the direct effects of the drugs on cognition. Experts are also on hand during the studies and often work one-on-one with patients during periods of drug-induced anxiety or fear.

This week, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) will host a conference on psychedelic science. Rick Doblin, executive director of MAPS, told the Times that cultural acceptance of alternative practices such as yoga and meditation have led to renewed consideration of the potential benefits of psychedelic medical treatment.

“There’s this coming together of science and spirituality,” he said. “We’re hoping that the mainstream and the psychedelic community can meet in the middle and avoid another culture war.”

The conference will include sessions on treating anxiety, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder using hallucinogenics such as psilocybin and LSD. Other topics will include the potential benefits of medical marijuana and the framework for guidelines in regulating the study and use of treatments that were, until recently, largely off-limits.

If studies continue to demonstrate the efficacy of hallucinogens, the drugs could one day offer a treatment that differs from traditional medical salves in a salient way: Hallucinogens, it seems, can transcend the Band-Aid fix offered by anti-depressants or even regular counseling.

At least, that’s the case with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a psychological ailment estimated to afflict a growing number of Americans, including up to 35 percent of the troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Michael Mithoefer, a psychiatrist in Charleston, S.C., has been running FDA-approved studies using MDMA — commonly known as Ecstasy — to treat victims of PTSD since 2004. All 21 of his initial patients demonstrated remarkable improvement during successive follow-ups.

Now, as Mithoefer continues his research, he wants to see Ecstasy licensed as a prescription medicine, provided the right safeguards exist.

“‘If MDMA indeed proves an effective treatment for PTSD,’ not only should the drug require prescription, but it should be administered only in licensed clinics with specially trained therapists, ‘like methadone,'” he told The Washington Post.

But such approval, whether of Ecstasy or psilocybin, could be years off. Much of the funding for hallucinogenic research continues to come from private donors and organizations. In 2006, MAPS donated an estimated $1 million to conduct research like Mithoefer’s.

And, of course, proponents of psychedelics will continue to face social stigma and, in some communities, a deeply ingrained distrust and fear of hallucinogenic drugs.

“The contemporary status of prohibition categorizes all illegal drug uses as destructive and blurs all distinctions between use and abuse,” the MAPS mission statement reads. “MAPS’ focus on altered states of consciousness also requires MAPS to deal with deep-seated cultural and individual ambivalence toward religious experiences, the exploration of the unconscious mind, fear of death and loss of control, and powerful emotional states.”

Katie Drummond, a contributor for AOL News, followed up the recent NY Times article “Hallucinogens Have Doctors Tuning In Again”, by expanding on psychedelic science being conducted in the U.S. The article has quotes from Michael Mithoefer, a MAPS-sponsored psychiatrist in Charleston, S.C., who has been running FDA-approved studies using MDMA.