Hallucinogens: Future of Mental Health Treatment?
Jan. 13, 2017 — The long, strange trip of research into the benefits of hallucinogenic drugs may be taking another turn.
They’ve mostly been banned for decades, but in the past 15 years, drugs like LSD, psilocybin (the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms”), and MDMA, also known as ecstasy, have shown promise in treating conditions like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and addiction.
Researchers are also looking at legal but widely abused drugs like ketamine, an anesthetic that also can produce hallucinations. The FDA recently put the ketamine-based drug esketamine on the fast track for approval as a treatment for major depression.
Matthew Johnson, PhD, a research psychologist at Johns Hopkins University, says he’d be surprised if hallucinogenic drugs didn’t have a proper medical use “under some constrained, limited circumstances.”
“Most powerful substances that we know of, that have powerful effects on the central nervous system, are like any powerful tool,” says Johnson, who has studied how psilocybin affects depression. “They can have dangerous effects, or beneficial effects, if judiciously used in a context where the dangers are known and mechanisms are in place to address them.”
Among some of the recent work:
- In early December, the FDA gave initial approval to plans for a phase III clinical trial of MDMA to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. The study, by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), is expected to involve 230 people over 2 to 3 years.
- Also in December, a team at Johns Hopkins, including Johnson, released results of a study that tested psilocybin in a group of 51 cancer patients who had symptoms of depression and anxiety. They found high doses — roughly two to three times the typical recreational dose — sharply reduced those symptoms, and four out of five had “clinically significant decreases in depressed mood and anxiety” 6 months later.
- Researchers at London’s Imperial College used a variety of scanning techniques to map for the first time how the brain responds to the effects of LSD. In March, they reported that the drug’s effects correlated with “marked changes” in blood flow and the brain’s communication network, giving scientists new insights into the physical responses it produces.
- In 2014, a Swiss-led study found that low doses of LSD, combined with psychotherapy, reduced anxiety in a study of a dozen patients with life-threatening diseases, “suggesting that larger controlled studies are warranted.”