Open Your Mind to the New Psychedelic Science

Fringe or frontier?

As many are aware, a good crop of psychedelic therapy studies are underway...if Phase I/II trials look good in terms of safety and efficacy, one can hope that NIH/NIMH will come around to the idea of funding some of these studies in the not-too-distant future.

Here's a more complete list of recent/ongoing studies:

- Depression: Brazil (upcoming)
- End-of-life anxiety: UCLA (completed), NYU (ongoing), Hopkins (ongoing)
- Smoking cessation: Johns Hopkins (ongoing)
- Alcoholism: U of NM (ongoing), NYU (pending)
- Enhancing meditation/spiritual practice: Hopkins (ongoing)
- Depression: UK (pending)
- PTSD: Switzerland (completed), Spain (completed), Israel (ongoing), University of Colorado (ongoing), South Carolina (completed and ongoing), Canada (pending)
- End-of-life anxiety: Switzerland (completed)
- Addiction: Mexico, New Zealand (ongoing)


Timothy Leary really screwed things up for science. By abandoning the scientific method for a mystical embrace of hallucinogenic drugs, the Harvard-professor-turned-LSD-evangelist became a symbol of ’60s-era drug-fueled degeneracy. Worse, the ensuing backlash pushed these drugs underground and caused an enormously promising field of research to go dormant for nearly half a century.

Or so say some scientists who met in Oakland, California last weekend for a conference on the science and therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs. “The antics of Timothy Leary really undermined the scientific approach to studying these compounds,” psychopharmacologist Roland Griffiths of Johns Hopkins University told the audience.

But the times they are a-changin’. In recent years, a small cadre of scientists has cautiously rekindled the scientific study of psychedelics. At the conference, they reported new findings on how these drugs scramble brain activity in ways that might help explain their mind-bending effects. They’re also slowly building a case that these drugs might help people with depression, anxiety and other disorders.

Roughly a dozen small clinical trials are now underway worldwide. But the idea isn’t “take two tabs of acid and call me in the morning.” Instead, these trials are testing the idea that psychedelics taken in a therapist’s office as part of a series of psychotherapy sessions can make talk therapy more effective.

“Now that we’ve been able to start getting some evidence on the benefits, it changes people’s calculus,” said Rick Doblin, the founder and executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), one of the meeting’s sponsors.

Doblin and MAPS have been battling regulators since the mid-80s to allow research and clinical trials with psychedelics. The recent revival of psychedelic science may be one sign their efforts are finally paying off.

Public attitudes towards illegal drugs in general may be shifting. A recent Pew Research Center survey, for example, found for the first time that more than half of Americans think marijuana should be legal. Baby boomers in particular, who may have hidden their stash while raising kids, seem to be loosening up in their old age, the survey found.

The interest in psychedelics may also have something to do with a growing sense of frustration over the lack of promising new psychiatric drugs in the pipeline. Many of the current drugs are based on compounds discovered serendipitously in the 1950s, and true innovation has been so hard to come by that many companies are giving up.

Meanwhile, people have been using hallucinogens for centuries, often in religious healing ceremonies, and yes, sometimes just for the hell of it. But just because they’re party drugs for some doesn’t mean they can’t be the subject of serious scientific inquiry. Or does it? After all, it didn’t end so well the first time around.

From its inception in 2010, the Psychedelic Science meeting has brought together an interesting mix of people. A record 1,800 of them attended this year. The prevalence of ponytails, nose rings and hemp accessories is predictably higher than at a typical science conference. There was also a tea lounge, a psychedelic art gallery, and a quiet room for anyone in need of riding out a rough trip.

“Absolutely some scientists would see the rainbow colors on the logo and the psychedelic art exhibits and say ‘that’s not real science,’” said Brad Burge, the communication director for MAPS. At the same time, some of the more mystically inclined devotees of psychedelics are averse to the scientific dissection of what they see as a sacred experience, Burge says. The conference isn’t for the folks at those ends of the spectrum.

Burge acknowledges there’s a tricky balancing act involved in hosting a forum for scientists who want their work to be taken seriously without excluding those who use psychedelic drugs recreationally. Even so, “we’re trying to get around the idea that there has to be a separation,” he said.

After all, this latter group helps fund much of the research through their donations to MAPS and other private organizations like the Heffter Research Institute and Beckley Foundation. Government funders like the National Institutes of Health are still skittish about psychedelic research.

This year’s conference showcased one area of research that’s exploded recently. It involves ayahuasca, a potent hallucinogenic brew of vines and leaves used in healing ceremonies by Amazonian shamans (as well as tourists — a pamphlet included in the conference swag bag advertised one center offering ayahuasca retreats).

Dráulio Barros de Araújo, a neuroscientist at the Brain Institute at the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil, presented new findings from an fMRI brain scan study with 10 experienced ayahuasca users, followers of Santo Daime, a spiritual practice that uses the brew.

Araújo’s team found that ayahuasca reduces neural activity in something called the default mode network, an web of interconnected brain regions that fire up whenever people aren’t focused on any specific task. It’s active when people daydream or let their minds wander, for example.

The default mode network has been a hot topic in neuroscience in recent years. Scientists don’t really know what it does, but they love to speculate. One interpretation is that activity in this network may represent what we experience as our internal monologue and may help generate our sense of self.

Last year, British scientists reported that psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, like ayahuasca, reduces activity in the brain’s default mode network.

The researchers proposed that interfering with the default network could be how psychedelic drugs cause what users often describe as a disintegration of the self, or even a sense of oneness with the universe.

Robin Carhart-Harris, the neuroscientist who led the psilocybin study, reported new findings at the conference from a study that used a method called magnetoencephalography, which tracks brain activity with better time resolution than fMRI does. The results suggest psilocybin affects not only the default mode network, but also disrupts a certain type of rhythmic brain activity.

Individual subjects who experienced more of this desychronization while on the drug tended to report a greater subjective sense of disintegration. ”For me this is the most interesting observation of the lot,” Carhart-Harris said. “Our sense of self, the sense of being someone, really is a kind of an illusion. All we are is a product of our brain activation.”

Eroding the sense of self may be one way hallucinogens produce what many users experience as profound spiritual insights. In 2008 Griffiths and his team at Johns Hopkins reported that the majority of 36 ordinary people who took psilocybin for the first time in an 8-hour session in his lab still regarded the experience as one of the five most personally meaningful events of their lives more than a year later. Two-thirds of them rated it among their top five spiritual experiences.

“It seemed so improbable to me when we started that they’d compare this to birth of a child or death of a parent,” he said at the conference.

More recently, Griffiths surveyed 1,600 recreational psilocybin and found that 40 percent ranked the experience in their top five most personally meaningful. The somewhat lower percentage isn’t surprising, Griffith says, because in the lab he and his colleagues went out of their way to make the environment as positive and comfortable as possible. But he’s encouraged that the results seem to generalize.

“This opens a door to the scientific study of mystical experiences,” Griffiths said. In future work, he hopes to investigate how the psilocybin experience may differ in people with different personality types, religious backgrounds, and genetics.

Clearly, drugs like psilocybin have powerful effects on the mind, but the rationale for using them in psychiatry requires a fair amount of hand waving. The same could be said of virtually all psychiatric treatments already on the market, however: Nobody really knows how they work.

The classic psychedelics, including psilocybin and LSD, stimulate receptors for serotonin, a neurotransmitter that’s also targeted, albeit in different ways, by approved antidepressant and anti-anxiety drugs like Prozac and Zoloft.

Several scientists at the conference pointed to findings that activity in the brain’s default mode network is elevated in people with depression. Because psilocybin and ayahuasca seem to dampen activity in this network, perhaps they could help.

It’s hard to connect those dots without a strong dose of speculation, but one idea is that the elevated activity in the default mode network reflects too much attention directed inward. People in the grips of depression, the thinking goes, are trapped in an endless cycle of critical self-examination, and a little neural desynchronization might help them reboot.

Araújo presented promising preliminary findings on using ayahausca to reduce symptoms of depression, and he’s recently gotten approval for a larger clinical trial in Brazil. The British group has approval to begin a trial with psilocybin.

Recent clinical trials
Ayahuasca Depression: Brazil (upcoming)
Psilocybin Depression: UK (pending), Smoking cessation: US (ongoing)
MDMA PTSD: Switzerland (completed), Spain (completed), Israel (ongoing), US (ongoing), Canada (upcoming)
LSD End of life anxiety: Switzerland (completed)
Ibogaine Addiction: Mexico, New Zealand (ongoing)
Source: MAPS/Psychedelic Science conference

Way to go dr. Griffiths and way to go jhu. He is the guy who does the mushroom research studies here in baltimore. I see his name in the city paper all the time under the studies as the principal investigator.
I've used psychedelics for therapy and they've helped me arrive at some amazing realizations, but the idea of doing them in a therapist's office does not sound appealing at all to me.

I really wholeheartedly support and respect this research, but when I do psychdelics I create my own space according to my own needs. I'm hoping that this angle of psychedelics as a clinical tool doesn't become appropriated and legalized only for clinicians. As a first step it would be wonderful progress, but as a long-term goal we should respect each individual's sovereign right to alter their own consciousness without fear of harsh reprisals. Not everyone's "therapy" is going to follow proscribed clinical standards.
^ I am with you.
I have done several dozen high-dose psychedelic sessions for the purpose of therapy, but they were all alone.
I would say that they helped me tremendously, with long-lasting positive changes, including some that still help me now, 5 years after my last psychedelic experience and more than 20 years after my first one.
But this is clearly not for all people. Some would do much better with a therapist present.
Reading about the studies is really heartening. These are invaluable tools, imo, that can potentially lead toward a more enlightened humanity.
i don't really get high enough off psychs to make a real difference with a therapist, i'd love to try it though but generally i don't want to dig into deep dark shit in my mind while tripping. Keep it there tucked away nicely, deep down inside, until i die. Generally if the therapist wants me to work on deeply rooted issues i am on benzos/opiates, though in a clinical setting, i can definitely seeing it allow people to open up finally about shit they keep buried like i do.

i'd like to see some studies on some of the newer drugs about, like 25i and such. The stuff they are going to find out from the old school psychs and mdma are stuff we already know but just haven't proven yet.
Gives me hope for the next 5, 10, 15 years. It's actually possible that humanity can heal from the mistakes of the past and present.

Being a 20 year old psychedelic enthusiast, I can't help but feel humbled by the fact I'll be living my life right through the "revolution" so to speak. I pray that by the time I'm my Fathers age, we so called modern and evolved human beings can find a way to reintegrate these sacraments into our society once again.
^ I wholeheartedly agree with everything in the above comment.

but this article is pretty harsh on Timothy Leary, don't ye have any respect for the dead? it's not like he singlehandedly fucked over the world he got fired from harvard and pretty much just tried to be a celebrity/philosopher.
I think a therapist is fine, if anything like years ago they will have researched prior what sort've sounds, etc, work to the best effect of this. Alongside discussion. I'm a big fan of tripping outside and doing your own thing, but if this is what results in medical use that has potential to work - and I think it should be, then go for it for those willing.

Strongly feel these chemicals are very rewarding in that sense. Although disregard the Timothy Leary part, we are reflecting on his actions which is now leading to these sorts of things happening. Wasn't like he was the only one big into LSD.

Synthetic tryptamines deserve a good look in my opinion. Ones such as 4-ho etc. Easy ways, avoids even the nausea of shrooms if being given this way (not sure?), to take/eat and rewarding effects - for me anyway.
What about a just being allowed to use psychedelics for recreation the same way alcohol is available for the main stream, until that happens it's not a level playing field.
Dondante;11520750 said:
- PTSD: Switzerland (completed), Spain (completed), Israel (ongoing), University of Colorado (ongoing), South Carolina (completed and ongoing), Canada (pending)

Isn't PTSD just a form of Anxiety? If so why's it restricted to just PTSD why not Anxiety as a whole?
Dysphoric;11523439 said:
Isn't PTSD just a form of Anxiety? If so why's it restricted to just PTSD why not Anxiety as a whole?

PTSD is more of an episodic fear with a clear association derived from an incident, whereas anxiety is more nebulous and is usually based on inheritance.

Anxiety is more treatable.

PTSD is notorious for being hard to treat, and is particularly researched nowadays due to the ridiculous wars of the West creating thousands of cases...
cpuller " Sure its totally leary's fault that some bigots had to make LSD illegal "

Exactly, I am with you Cpuller even if unfuckwitable claims we miss the point, LSD and Psilocybin would have been made illegal with or without Leary, he takes the blame because he was one of the first to publicize these compounds and get on national TV and spread the word. Even if he halted Scientific research he still was the main reason LSD spread throughout the world like it needed to.

So is Bob Marley the reason Ganja is still illegal in my state?

Great article absolutely poor opener, hate to see Leary dogged on the front page of Bluelight thats just idiotic, no offense to the author or event it seems the author is just stating quotes.

"Timothy Leary really screwed things up for science" LMFAO, has anyone in the world ever looked at the whole picture!? Or do you all just flow with the masses?
^I kind of agree; it's pretty harsh. Maybe Wired feels the need to be edgy.

The anti-Leary sentiment comes from this guy, particularly for this reason:

Q 10: Isn’t your work similar to what Timothy Leary did?

We are conducting rigorous, systematic research with psilocybin under carefully monitored conditions, a route which Dr. Leary abandoned in the early 1960s.

It's an Oedipal thing I guess.
it's quite obvious that the writers' opening statements are strongly worded, even excessive, to grab the readers' attention, but it wasn't meant to scrutinize the man to the very core of his being; simply to illustrate the fact that this compound has never been afforded the proper clinical research it clearly deserves. something so powerful could have been handled a little more carefully, i think we all can agree, especially in such times of public outrage & societal fear. LSD was never given the full potential to be utilized for something great (like every other drug in this country) - and this can be attributed in part to the less-than-cautiously handled LSD craze of that era. it's natural that we must attach a face to it, if at the end of the day it caught the readers' attention or sold a publication - then sadly it will be considered a successful, if not unscrupulous piece of writing.

we all have our faults.
Reasonable article - I skimmed it though - it seemed to just state the obvious. I skimmed it due to how it starts - Timothy Leary is an easy scapegoat.

Drugs that alter the mind away from the status quo, the hive mind, the sheep mentality of being a busy worker ant, trapped as part of many heirachies have been getting banned by the establishment for fucking ages.

Maybe Timothy Leary was a bit careless, but this would've happened anyway. It happened at the right time, so that careful clandestine research has been done until the time when we can finally effect positive change, universally.

The blame falls on every single careless trip taker, just as much as it did Leary.