Psy­che­delic come­back

Psy­che­delic drugs’ rep­u­ta­tions were forged decades ago by the likes of psy­chol­o­gist Tim­o­thy Leary, fore­ground, and coun­ter­cul­ture icon Neal Cas­sady.
By Melissa Healy con­tact the reporter

Med­ical Research Drug Research Men­tal Health Research Sci­en­tific Research

New research on the use of psy­che­delic drugs as treat­ment for a range of men­tal dis­or­ders appears to be throw­ing open doors of per­cep­tion long closed within the med­ical com­mu­nity, says a new analy­sis in the Cana­dian Med­ical Assn. Jour­nal.

For sev­eral decades, the North Amer­i­can med­ical estab­lish­ment has clas­si­fied psy­che­delic drugs — includ­ing lyser­gic acid diethy­lamide (LSD), psilo­cy­bin and meth­yl­ene­dioxymetham­phet­a­mine (MDMA) — as drugs of abuse with lit­tle to no med­ical pur­pose or means of safe use.

That, four researchers argue, is chang­ing.

In Switzer­land, Canada, Brazil, Peru, Mex­ico and the United States, researchers with no evi­dent coun­ter­cul­tural ten­den­cies are con­duct­ing research that is find­ing psy­che­delic drugs a valu­able adjunct to psy­chother­apy in treat­ing addic­tion, post-​traumatic stress and the depres­sion or anx­i­ety that often comes with ter­mi­nal ill­ness.

While most are small-​scale pilot stud­ies, larger tri­als are planned — and “more and more peo­ple are becom­ing inter­ested and even jump­ing into the field to start tri­als them­selves,” said senior author Matthew W. John­son, a pro­fes­sor of psy­chi­a­try and behav­ioral sci­ences at Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­sity.

Clin­i­cal inves­ti­ga­tors are demon­strat­ing that such research “can con­form to the rig­or­ous sci­en­tific, eth­i­cal and safety stan­dards expected of con­tem­po­rary med­ical research,” the authors write in the new ana­y­sis, titled “Psy­che­delic med­i­cine: a re-​emerging ther­a­peu­tic par­a­digm.” And the body of research they are gen­er­at­ing is demon­strat­ing that such drugs as MDMA, LSD and psilo­cy­bin can be effec­tive in treat­ing well-​chosen patients.

Two other fac­tors — cost and time — also appear to be open­ing minds about the poten­tial ther­a­peu­tic uses of psy­che­delic drugs, said John­son, whose research focuses on addic­tion treat­ment.

Exper­i­men­tal ther­a­peu­tic uses of psy­che­delic drugs have been tightly con­trolled, requir­ing exten­sive screen­ing of prospec­tive patients, close mon­i­tor­ing dur­ing med­ica­tion use, and extended follow-​up. But for all of that, when psy­che­delics such as MDMA have been tested in con­junc­tion with psy­chother­apy for PTSD, or psilo­cy­bin for alco­hol depen­dence, “rel­a­tively time-​limited inter­ven­tions” have been shown to have endur­ing ben­e­fits.

At a time when econ­omy is sought in med­ical care, that may reveal psy­che­delics to be an “eco­nom­i­cally viable” alter­na­tive to exist­ing ther­a­pies, the authors wrote.

And the pas­sage of time since psy­che­delics gained noto­ri­ety in the 1960s appears to have made a rea­son­able assess­ment of their poten­tial worth pos­si­ble, John­son said.

“It’s been a long road — this started back in the mid-​late 1990s when the [U.S. Food and Drug Admin­is­tra­tion] started to approve some of these very early stud­ies,” he said in an inter­view. “It’s been a cau­tious road, but one that’s data-​driven. A big fac­tor is really that enough time has passed for the sen­sa­tion­al­ism to kind of sim­mer down and for sober heads to say, ‘Hold on, let’s look at the evidence.’”

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