Reforming Psychedelic Science and Policy: An Update from the Beckley Foundation

Winter 2012 Vol. 22, No. 3: 2012 Annual Report

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Amanda Feilding, Founder and Director of The Beckley Foundation

The Beckley Foundation has had a very successful year, with much progress on our dual fronts of Science and Policy.

In January the Beckley Foundation–Imperial College Psychedelic Research Programme published two ground-breaking scientific papers on the effects of psilocybin on cerebral blood flow and brain activity, using brain-imaging technology correlated with subjective reports. The findings reveal how psilocybin decreases blood flow and thereby diminishes the activity of a network of key “hub centres,” which are responsible for filtering and coordinating information. By decreasing this censoring activity, psilocybin allows a freer, less constrained state of consciousness to emerge.

One of the “hubs” deprived of blood flow by psilocybin is known to be overactive in chronic depression, a condition characterised by rigidly negative thought patterns. By lowering the activity of this “hub,” psilocybin may allow the excessively rigid negative thinking to be reset. On the back of these findings, the UK’s Medical Research Council has awarded a substantial grant to investigate the potential of psilocybin in the treatment of depression. It is a major breakthrough for a psychedelic study to receive government funding.

We also found that another “hub” centre, which is overactive in cluster headaches, has its activity reduced by psilocybin. This finding lends neuroscientific support to the anecdotal evidence that magic mushrooms and LSD can provide effective relief for this agonising condition.

The second paper, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, details how psilocybin produces extraordinarily vivid and lifelike memories in comparison with placebo. The results highlight the valuable potential of psilocybin as an aid to psychotherapy in enabling the subject more easily to access, and therefore work through, traumatic memories.

A third Beckley/Imperial psilocybin paper has recently been published in the Schizophrenia Bulletin. Our results show that the changes in connectivity between brain regions brought about by psilocybin resemble those seen during meditation and early psychosis: The networks responsible for inner focus and external attention, normally acting in opposition to one another, become more closely coupled. This can result in a blurring between “inner” and “outer” worlds in all these states—for example the “ego-dissolution” and “unitary state of awareness” reported both after taking psychedelics and in the mystical state.

Another Beckley/Imperial study, into the neural basis of the effects of MDMA, was televised in September on Channel 4 in the UK and watched by over two million people. In response to positive memories, MDMA was found to increase the response of the brain’s sensory cortex. By contrast, during recall of negative memories, brain areas associated with negative emotions—such as the amygdala –showed decreased activity under MDMA.

This observation provides a neuroscientific explanation for the success that MAPS has reported in using MDMA-assisted psychotherapy in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When memory recall is less traumatic, patients can more easily engage with, and work through, their traumatic memories.

In the coming months, we plan to continue the Beckley/Imperial collaboration with brain imaging research on LSD and cannabis, for which protocols have been prepared.

Another Beckley study, in collaboration with Johns Hopkins, is the first in modern times to use a psychedelic as an aid in the treatment of addiction—in this case, to nicotine. Although the trial has had only a handful of participants so far, its findings to date have been amazing, with all the participants remaining long-term abstinent. The study has recently benefitted from funding from the Heffter Research Institute, enabling it to develop more rapidly to the next phase.

Our research into the neuroscience and therapeutic effects of cannabis is also moving forward. A Beckley study in collaboration with Harborside Health Center in California and University College, London is producing a unique database on the medical efficacy of different strains of cannabis in relation to their different chemical compositions. This will provide a valuable resource for future clinical research, as well as evidence for policy-makers.

Our long-running collaboration at King’s College London investigating the different characteristics of THC and CBD has produced much valuable data, such as showing that CBD counteracts the effects of THC, reducing both the paranoia and the memory impairment that THC can induce. Further results recently published show that CBD can counteract symptoms of prodromal psychosis. High-potency street cannabis tends to be high in THC, with little or no CBD— precisely the combination that can have the greatest potential for harm. With a regulated market, content could be labelled.

Our programme of psychedelic research is not only opening up new avenues of treatment, but also shedding new light on the mechanisms underlying consciousness, arguably the last and greatest mystery for mankind. Substances that alter consciousness as profoundly as psychedelics are vital for this research, yet only very recently has any systematic investigation become possible. Even now, progress is throttled by a cumbersome prohibitionist regime that shuts out all but the most determined searchers. The Beckley Foundation is proud to be at the forefront of this research.

The Beckley’s Policy Programme is also making exciting progress. In July, at the invitation of President Otto Pérez Molina, we opened a Latin American Chapter in Guatemala. The Chapter is advising the President and his Government on drug policy matters, including developing a sophisticated range of policy options aimed at reducing violence and corruption in Guatemala and the wider region.

In late 2012 we are to launch a new global campaign website, in partnership with the Global Commission on Drug Policy, Virgin United and Avaaz, to coincide with the release of the film Breaking the Taboo. The campaign, whose Mission Statement is the Beckley Public Letter, will aim to collect over a million signatories calling for an end to the War on Drugs. The Letter has already been signed by eight Presidents and twelve Nobel laureates.

We have also just released a major new report, Roadmap to Reforming the UN Drug Conventions, which details how a group of countries could set about amending the UN Conventions to allow them the freedom to formulate national drug policies better suited to their special needs and circumstances, in place of the failed prohibitionist approach of “one size fits all.”

Founded in 1998, the Beckley Foundation aims to scientifically investigate altered states of consciousness, and to change global drugs policy to reflect a more rational, evidence-based ideology. To learn more, visit