There is a growing body of evidence that some psychedelic drugs can be used to treat a variety of conditions. The potential, the people and the politics are all up for discussion.
Many researchers have been interested in the idea that psychedelics facilitate communication across the brain and, more specifically, how the default-mode network in the brain, arguably science’s best biological correlate of the self, normally works to constrain this.
“Psychedelics” are substances with the ability to expand human awareness beyond our normal modes of perception. Some may be the most amazing substances known to humanity, so potent that just 1/10,000th of a gram can send one on a journey beyond time and space, beyond life and death.
Carhart-Harris performed the UK’s first clinical trial of psilocybin — the active ingredient in magic mushrooms — for treatment-resistant depression. It was a small trial with no control group, but the results gave cause for optimism, with 5 of the 12 participants no longer clinically depressed three months after the treatment.
In other psilocybin research, one dose was found to help people with life-threatening cancer face death. Ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic concoction drunk for centuries as part of religious rituals in South America, has also been found to improve hard-to-treat depression. It contains the psychedelic compound dimethyltryptamine (DMT).
The vine is usually mixed with leaves containing the psychedelic compound DMT (diemethyltryptamine). It causes hallucinogenic experiences, and is made up of a chemical compound that already occurs within the human body endogenously (as well as in a number of plants). This means our brains are naturally set up to process the compound because it has receptors that exist specifically to do so.
While research into psychedelics is still thin on the ground, a meta-analysis of six studies carried out between 1966 and 1970 concluded that LSD was as effective as the standard treatment for alcoholism.
The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease published results from the first study of LSD’s therapeutic potential in humans to appear in more than four decades. The controlled, double-blind study, which was conducted in Switzerland under the direction of Swiss psychiatrist Peter Gasser, measured the impact of LSD-assisted psychotherapy on 12 people with life-threatening diseases (mainly terminal cancer). “The study was a success in the sense that we did not have any noteworthy adverse effects,” Gasser says. “All participants reported a personal benefit from the treatment, and the effects were stable over time.”
LSD reduces connectivity within brain networks, or the extent to which nerve cells or neurons within a network fire in synchrony. LSD also seems to reduce the extent to which separate brain networks remain distinct in their patterns or synchronization of firing. Overall, LSD interferes with the patterns of activation in the different brain networks that underlie human thought and behavior.
And Ibogaine — derived from the iboga plant — has been used to treat heroin addiction. MDMA, or ecstasy, was found to help people who have experienced trauma.
Psychedelic drugs are not physiologically addictive and they are not necessarily that pleasurable either. “People often say, as our patients did, that this isn’t a moreish drug. It’s certainly not a hedonic drug,” says Carhart-Harris. “Some even challenge whether it’s a drug of recreation; maybe it’s a drug of exploration.” People taking such substances can have intense and disturbing experiences — aka a bad trip.