The Healing Power of Psychedelics, According to Science

Chuckles Freely

Modern science is slowly rediscovering how psychedelic substances can treat an array of mental illnesses.

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Humanity has used various psychedelic substance for millennia, possibly for treating mental health disorders.(chrissmith12 from Pixabay)

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About 1000 years ago, a shaman was buried in a southern-Bolivian cave with a ritualistic pouch full of psychoactive substances. Made of 3 fox snouts, this pouch had chemical signatures of dimethyltryptamine (DMT), cocaine, benzoylecgonine (BZE), and psilocin, a compound found in hallucinogenic mushrooms. The international team of archeologists that found the pouch in 2010 noted in their paper that this demonstrates just how important psychedelics were to the many cultures scattered across South America. “Presumably, the consumption of psychoactive substances facilitated the communication between ritual specialists, ancestors, and deities.” They reasoned that putting together such a varied collection of ingredients that could only be obtained in specific, far-flung areas means that either a vast trading network for these substances existed or shamans were so sought after they were willing to travel across the continent to perform their services.

And this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. We have ample evidence of ancient cultures using psychedelics from nearly every corner of the world. For example, some ancient Greeks took part in the Eleusinian Mysteries, in which they performed ceremonies for the goddesses Demeter and Persephone and drank kykeon, a mixture spiked with Ergot, a fungus with psychoactive properties. Those that took part in these secret ceremonies were described as having vivid hallucinations. Direct evidence for this comes from archeological excavations of the Mas Castellar site in Spain, where archeologists found Ergot pieces in vases and in the dental remains of bodies. Some scholars have even argued that psychedelics played a pivotal role in early Judeo-Christian history, going so far as to suggest that divine revelations were merely hallucinations. If they’re correct, Moses wasn’t really communing with God. He was just really high. The Native Americans used peyote, and in fact, in recent years they’ve been caught in legal battles trying to decriminalize it, so it can be used everyone. Ancient Chinese herbal medicine contained numerous hallucinogenic plants including langdang, yunshi, fangkui, and shanglu.

Name an ancient culture, and there’s a high chance we have evidence of them using some form of psychedelics. But why? Why are they so common in our history? While the use of psychedelic substances were certainly for religious and entertainment purposes, it’s worth considering if they had legitimate medicinal value. Modern science seems to be slowly rediscovering the fact that psychedelics were so prevalent in human history because they offered a unique treatment for a wide array of mental health issues.

The Witches’ Brew

The modern use and study of psychedelics has largely been an uphill battle that began in the Middle Ages. In their book Plants of the Gods (Amazon Affiliate Link), authors Schultes and Hoffman describe how primitive physicians during this time prescribed a brew of psychoactive plants like mandrake, henbane, and belladonna to treat both mental and physical problems. This was standard practice until the growing power of Christianity systematically put an end to it, as it was thought to be the work of witches and pagans. So, for hundreds of years, the use and study of psychedelics in the West dwindled.

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References to mandrake root can be found in the Bible, folklore, and occult texts.(erictx from Pixabay)

Scientific interest in psychedelics reemerged in the 1890s. In 1894, Louis Lewin, a pharmacologist from Germany, tested and classified the different types of psychoactive substances, coining the terms euphoriants, inebriants, and phantastica, among a few others. He published his findings in his influential book The Incidental Effects of Drugs: A Pharmacological and Clinical Hand-Book (Amazon Affiliate Link). Today these are known as opiates, alcohol, and psychedelics. He believed these substances had therapeutic effects because “The natural and internal impulses need to be artificially reinforced in the loud, harsh and strenuous world of the present day in order to maintain biological energy at the normal standard necessary for the working of the vital functions.” 2 years later, Arthur Heffter, another German scientist, isolated mescaline for the first time. In 1912, MDMA was first synthesized in a lab, and in 1938, Albert Hoffman first synthesized LSD.

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Louis Lewin was a German pharmacologist and prolific author, having published dozens of papers and books.(Public Domain from Wikipedia)

Interest was accelerating, but it wasn’t until the late 1950s that research began in earnest, although this mainly focused on mescaline, LSD, and psilocybin. Some of the more important papers to emerge from this time are Isbell’s “Comparison of the reactions induced by psilocybin and LSD-25 in man,” Rinkel’s “ Pharmacodynamics of LSD and mescaline,” Evarts’ “A REVIEW OF THE NEUROPHYSIOLOGICAL EFFECTS OF LYSERGIC ACID DIETHYLAMIDE (LSD) AND OTHER PSYCHOTOMIMETIC AGENTS,” and Sandison’s “The Therapeutic Value of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide in Mental Illness.” These papers and others like them gave us a more solid understanding of what psychedelics are, how they affected the brain, and their ability to treat mental illness. For example, Sandison analyzed the effects of LSD on 36 patients and determined that “We consider that the drug will find a significant place in the treatment of the psychoneuroses and allied mental illnesses.”

Building on this preliminary work, the highly controversial Dr. Timothy Leary published a handful of landmark studies in the 1960s demonstrating the legitimate, clinical use of psychedelics. For example, in his Concord Prison Experiment he administered psilocybin during therapy sessions to 32 prisoners at the Massachusetts Correctional Institute, and when they were released they had significantly lower rates of recidivism, with 73% not violating parole or committing any new crimes.

However, such studies came to an immediate halt because of the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the 1971 UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and the US Controlled Substances Act, signed by Nixon in 1970. The UN resolutions established a system to stop the international transportation of psychedelics, while Nixon and his cohorts categorized psychedelics as Schedule 1, meaning they officially have no medical use, are likely to be abused, and are unlikely safe for use.

In essence, psychedelics were again demonized, not unlike what the Christians did in the Middle Ages. Decades later, we’ve learned Nixon’s real motivation was political. A quote from his former domestic policy advisor has recently surfaced:

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”Tom LoBianco, CNN, 2016

So instead of blaming witches and pagans, the targets were now minorities and hippies. Because of these shenanigans, the War on Drugs was waged. This not only ended any research into psychedelics but left communities and families shattered. The US incarceration rate increased 500%, disproportionately affecting minority communities… as intended.

The Great Johnny Hopkins

John Hopkins was a 19th century millionaire that made his fortune as a merchant and investor. When he died, his will stipulated that it be used to found his namesake hospital. His will readThe indigent sick of this city and its environs, without regard to sex, age, or color, who may require surgical or medical treatment, and who can be received into the hospital without peril to the other inmates, and the poor of this city and state, of all races, who are stricken down by any casualty, shall be received into the hospital, without charge.” Today, John Hopkins is among the foremost treatment and research centers in the world.

In 2000, Paul B. Rothman, M.D., Dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine, successfully petitioned the US government to continue psychedelic research, a move that likely would’ve made John Hopkins proud. After being granted special permission, he founded the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, and only 6 years later they published the first scientific study in decades. Rothman claimed thatOur scientists have shown that psychedelics have real potential as medicine, and this new center will help us explore that potential. “ And he was right. As of this writing, they’ve published more than 60 peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals on psychedelics’ positive effects, including treating addiction, depression, and existential distress for those with terminal illnesses. Future research will be focused on using psychedelics to treat Alzheimer’s, PTSD, anorexia, and many other mental disorders.

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John Hopkins was founded in 1876 with money from Hopkins’ will.Public Domain from Wikipedia

A good example of their work is a 2016 study, in which they gave 51 cancer patients suffering from severe depression and anxiety high doses of psilocybin. They found that “High-dose psilocybin produced large decreases in clinician- and self-rated measures of depressed mood and anxiety, along with increases in quality of life, life meaning, and optimism, and decreases in death anxiety.” 6 months after the trial, 80% of the participants still exhibited decreases in depression and anxiety, suggesting the use of psychedelics might cause long-lasting or permanent changes. Participants also reported having significantly higher life satisfaction, stronger relationships, and more spiritual experiences.

One of the more interesting studies conducted by this team is an ongoing online survey of people before and after they take psilocybin. Their intent is to collect as much data as possible on “demographics; lifestyle; mindset; and personality traits; as well as characteristics of the experience itself such as dosage, ingestion method, intention, and setting, that could influence psilocybin’s long-term effects.” They believe such a wide study will provide unique insight into the benefits and/or negatives of ingesting psilocybin.

A Psychedelic Renaissance

Everything I do turns to crap.” This mantra played endlessly in Kurt Rutter’s mind. Suffering from clinical depression, the death of his mother, and lasting injuries from a car accident, Kurt reached a breaking point. After years of therapy and various medications, he knew he needed something outside the normal treatments, so he enrolled in a new study run by Hammersmith Hospital in London. After extensive testing and screening, Robin Carhart-Harris, a highly trained neuroscientist from the Imperial College of London, gave him two pills containing a synthetic compound that mimicked psilocybin. Kurt said that after some initial hallucinations, he felt his brain target his grief, as if it knew it was a presence that didn’t belong. In an interview Carhart-Harris explained thatwe see a dampening or muffling of the brain’s responsiveness to emotional stimuli relative to the psilocybin. That makes sense because the psilocybin is more like an emotional recalibration or reset.”

And these types of trials are not uncommon these days, nor are the results. For example, under the guidance of the University of Texas at Austin’s Dell Medical Center for Psychedelic Research and Therapy, Nate Reeve received similar treatment to Kurt in 2021. Nate served in the Navy for 16 years, which gave him recurring dreams that he’s “about to jump into a mission and I don’t have my helmet or I can’t find my gun,” giving him anxiety, PTSD, and depression. Nate claims this has reduced his suicidal tendencies and hopes research will ramp up in coming years. The Mission Within and Heroic Hearts Project, a nonprofit dedicated to helping veterans where the Veterans Affairs system has failed, agrees with such trials, as they have partnered with the University of Texas to help enroll those in need.

Furthermore, not only is the US government allowing research, they’re also funding it. After a 50 year dry spell, the National Institute of Health has forked over $4 million to scientists at University of Alabama, New York University, and John Hopkins. Matthew Johnson, professor in psychedelics and consciousness at Johns Hopkins University, was ecstatic. “The historical importance of this grant is monumental. We knew it was only a matter of time before the NIH would fund this work because the data are so compelling, and because this work has demonstrated to be safe.” Led by Johnson, the team will use the money on a 3-year study to determine the effects of psilocybin on quitting tobacco. This is a follow-up to a 2014 study that demonstrated psilocybin is effective in helping people quit smoking when all other methods had already failed.

It’s not only in the US. The Psychae Institute was founded in Melbourne Australia in 2021 and has brought together university researchers from the UK, Canada, Brazil, Switzerland, and of course Australia. With funding of $40 million dollars, they’ll focus on the medical benefits of MDMA, psilocybin, ayahuasca, among others. Co-director Daniel Perkins believesThere is such a high prevalence of mental health disorders globally, with 800 million globally suffering with a mental illness. The research we undertake will give new hope and more options to these people.”

The Mental Health Crisis

Some estimates put the amount of people suffering from mental health disorders at a billion globally. The common disorders are anxiety and depression, with women being affected slightly more than men.

This translates to:

  • Anxiety: 284 million people
  • Depression: 264 million people
  • Alcohol abuse: 107 million people
  • Drug abuse: 71 million people
  • Bipolar disorder: 46 million people
  • Schizophrenia: 20 million people
  • Eating disorders: 16 million people

According to a study published in JAMA Psychiatry, these mental disorders result in a decrease in median life expectancy of 10.1 years and are responsible for 14.3% of global deaths, roughly 8 million people, per year.

Although we spend about $150 billion a year treating these disorders, according to a study from The Lancet, the WHO believesMany mental health conditions can be effectively treated at relatively low cost, yet the gap between people needing care and those with access to care remains substantial. Effective treatment coverage remains extremely low.”

Among the many possible solutions to this crisis, the clinical use of psychedelics should not be ruled out, as there is growing evidence they can offer a unique benefit, something it seems humanity figured out millennia ago and then forgot about.

Slow Your Roll, Sparky

The above isn’t meant to encourage recreational drug use. Rather, the purpose of this article to explain the possible medical uses of psychedelics, in that they need to be used a clinical setting, under the guidance of a medical professional, and often alongside other treatment methods like therapy. Carhart-Harris was very clear about this. “There is a growing evidence base to the principle that this is very much about a synergy between drug-induced hyper-plasticity and therapeutic support.” In other words, a trained support network is essential.

Dr. Timothy Leary touched on this idea as well. Although he didn’t create the idea, he became a staunch advocate for “set and setting.” Set, a shortened form of the word ‘mindset,’ refers to the mental state patients bring with them. This includes their mood, expectations, thoughts, etc. Setting is the environment, including the sounds, smells, sights, tastes, social atmosphere, etc. Both of these are thought to heavily influence a person’s experience while under the influence of psychedelics. Leary gave a detailed description of what he believed were the best ways to create a beneficial “set and setting” in his 1964 book The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Amazon Affiliate Link), with an emphasis on having knowledgeable people to help guide a patient before, during, and after the experience.

And that’s the point. Patients suffering from medical problems need to be under the guidance of medical professionals. Using psychedelics in medicine should be like using any other medication. The patient needs to be diagnosed, the medicine needs to be prescribed, and the medicine needs to be used as intended. If not, like abusing other medication, there might be adverse side-effects. For example, the abuse of psychedelics can lead to Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder, Persistent Psychosis, memory loss, among many other possible problems. For patients seeking relief from mental disorders, haphazardly tinkering with an already fragile brain by self-administering psychedelics is not recommended.

Originally published at http://thehappyneuron.com on February 9, 2022.

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