Psychedelic Drug Trips Might Help Treat Mental Illness, Researchers Say

Originally appeared at: (Aug. 18) — They’re illicit, lead to hallucinations and out-there sensations, and can be dangerous and even downright deadly. But illegal psychedelic drugs such as ecstasy, LSD, mushrooms and ketamine might also be able to help treat myriad serious medical conditions, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Now, a new analysis in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience is adding more scientific weight to a recent surge in studies and reports on the potential benefits of such mind-altering substances. A team of Swiss researchers at Zurich’s University Hospital of Psychiatry have concluded that further research into the pros of psychedelics is warranted. “Drugs that increase neuroplasticity, such as psychedelics, might be particularly clinically efficient in combination with psychotherapeutic interventions,” the report reads, noting that cognitive therapy seems to influence relevant brain regions that would compliment the mechanisms of mind-altering drugs. As this team notes, more studies are needed to establish just how the drugs work, and what kinds of limitations or side effects they might have. But here in the U.S, some scientists are already being granted approval to test mind-altering, illicit substances on patients in dire need of effective treatment. The secret medical history of psychedelics Some of the drugs being re-evaluated, including LSD, were once mainstays of mid-20th-century psychiatric care regimens, even becoming the preferred treatment of old-Hollywood celebrities like Cary Grant. Government crackdowns in the 1970s — most notably the Controlled Substances Act — led to most being relegated to rave parties, music festivals and the basements of experimental teenagers, which exacerbated problems with misuse and abuse. But the longstanding impression of the drugs as outdated medical treatments or risky recreational tools is slowly starting to change, largely thanks to modern scientific techniques, like brain scans, which allow doctors to observe with unprecedented accuracy just where and how psychedelics affect the mind. What’s being studied right now Just last month, Dr. Michael Mithoefer and a team of researchers published the successful results of a study that used MDMA — also known as ecstasy — to catalyze psychotherapy for patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. “MDMA seems to bring people into the optimal zone for therapy and seems to help them process the trauma and not be overwhelmed by feelings,” Mithoefer said of the study, which included 20 participants. The same team will soon start an FDA-approved trial of 40 military veterans, in a move that offers a degree of hope to the unprecedented numbers of troops coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan with symptoms of PTSD. But even as the Pentagon struggles to find a foolproof treatment for PTSD, even trying yoga and acupuncture, they’ve yet to shell out for studies of psychedelics. Small studies on other drugs, like ketamine, have shown promising results in helping sufferers of clinical depression that didn’t respond to standard pharmaceuticals. The difference between recreational and medicinal use Of course, the drugs used in such trials aren’t doled out like they would be during recreational use. During Mithoefer’s study, patients were given a small dose of MDMA, and then partook in eight-hour, individual counseling sessions. “The idea is that it would be very limited, maybe several sessions over a few months, not a long-term thing like other types of medication,” Dr. Franz Vollenweider, lead author of the Nature report, told Reuters. An article written in response to a new review in the Nature Reviews Neuroscience Journal discussing the potential of psychedelic drugs in helping to treat people suffering from several medical conditions including depression and PTSD.