Researchers take a fresh look at psychedelic drugs
While proponents of psychedelics have for decades called the drugs beneficial, serious research has been lacking until recently. The drugs are associated both with the 1960s counterculture, and also with disturbing medical research performed in years past. The CIA’s Project MK-ULTRA saw research into various mind-altering substances such as LSD, MDMA, and psilocybin in the 1950s and 1960s. The program was unfortunately also associated with questionable medical ethics both in the United States and in Canada, where experimentation on subjects at Montreal’s Allan Memorial Institute was very controversial.
More recent research has been conducted to show that psychedelics and other illicit drugs may have therapeutic benefits, after all. Studies in Switzerland, the United States and elsewhere have shown these drugs could be useful for treating a whole range of conditions. Scientists involved with these research efforts are prompting the world to take a new look at the value of psychedelics.
Pharmacologist Charles Nichols works at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, where researchers are looking into the anti-inflammatory properties of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD or “acid”.) “The potency is about 300 times more potent than steroidal anti-inflammatories,” he says of the drug. Research in Switzerland is expected to conclude in fall 2010. The Swiss researchers have been looking into the benefits of using acid to aid psychotherapy for patients diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses.
The active ingredient in “magic mushrooms” has been used as an adjunct to psychotherapy for people with terminal cancer. It is also effective in treating obsessive-compulsive disorder. Ongoing research is using psilocybin to treat addiction; other projects are using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to map the effect of psilocybin on the ability to recalled repressed memories.
This powerful human and veterinary anesthetic, also known on the street as “Special K,” is perhaps the most promising psychedelic drug so far. Ketamine can reduce the risk of suicide, and is being tested for use in bipolar disorder and treatment of addiction. Its powerful effects on depression have been observed by neuroscientist Ron Duman, of the Yale University School of Medicine. The drug is effective within two hours of taking the first dose, unlike conventional antidepressants that can take two or more weeks before they begin to relieve symptoms. A single therapeutic dose of ketamine is so potent it can relieve depression for up to seven days.
Brain imaging studies using psychedelics show these drugs can act on parts of the brain that are altered in people who experience depression or chronic anxiety. Psychedelics like ketamine “can induce a rapid increase in connections in the brain, the synapses by which neurons interact and communicate with each other,” says Duman. Taken at the right dose and under medical supervision these drugs can help patients perceive their conditions differently, allowing them to work with mental health professionals to find new strategies for coping and relief of symptoms.
David Biello, “Psychedelic drugs show promise as anti-depressants.” Scientific American
“Psychedelic research around the world.” MAPS: Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies