Treating Mental Illness With Psychedelics
The burden of mental disorders continues to grow with significant impacts on health and major social, human rights and economic consequences in all countries of the world. For instance, the World Health Organization (WHO) states that depression is a common mental disorder and one of the main causes of disability worldwide. Globally, an estimated 300 million people are affected by depression.
For decades now, the issue of mental health has been largely lacking any concrete meaningful treatment developments. But now, many scientists and scholars have become vocal advocates of a new hope for treatment, psychedelics. Recent research suggests certain psychedelic substances can help relieve or even treat anxiety, depression, PTSD, and addiction.
According to a new review of studies published online in the journal Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, just one psychedelic trip can lead to changes in personality that can possibly last for years.
A team of researchers from Brazil and Spain analyzed 18 studies conducted between 1985 and 2016, all of which examined the relationship between the use of psychedelics and personality changes.
The researchers focused on papers that specifically examined serotonergic drugs, drugs that have structures similar to that of the neurotransmitter serotonin, a brain chemical which has an influence on our moods and appetites, resulting in hallucinations, euphoria and a number of other sensations.
According to the review, individuals who took magic mushrooms, LSD or Ayahuasca, were found to have higher rates of ‘openness’. In psychological terms, openness — one of the five main personality traits — is made up of different facets including appreciation of new experiences, attentiveness to inner feelings and intellectual curiosity.
“Psychedelic drug users and non-users appear to differ in some personality traits,” the authors wrote in their review. “Psychedelics administered in controlled settings may induce personality changes, such as increased Openness and Self-Transcendence.”
“This type of research may offer new evidence to the classic discussion on whether personality is or isn’t a constant and stable psychological trait,” the researchers added.
Research indicated that even one psychedelic trip could lead to a change in personality that may last for months and years, but what are some concrete changes that may occur after tripping on LSD, DMT or psilocybin.
Psilocybin is the primary mind-altering substance in psychedelic “magic” mushrooms. This substance can profoundly alter the way a person experiences the world by producing changes in mood, sensory and time perception, and sense of self.
In a study published in the scientific journal Neuropharmacology, researchers found that depressed people had increased neural responses to fearful faces one day after a psilocybin-assisted therapy session, which positively predicted positive clinical outcomes.
“I believe that psychedelics hold a potential to cure deep psychological wounds, and I believe that by investigating their neuropsychopharmacological mechanism, we can learn to understand this potential,” explained study author Leor Roseman, a PhD student at Imperial College London.
In this open-label study, 20 individuals diagnosed with moderate to severe, treatment-resistant depression, underwent two separate dosing sessions with psilocybin. Psychological support was provided before, during and after these sessions and 19 completed fMRI scans one week prior to the first session and one day after the second and last. Neutral, fearful and happy faces were presented in the scanner and analyses focused on the amygdala.
Group results revealed rapid and enduring improvements in depressive symptoms post psilocybin. Increased responses to fearful and happy faces were observed in the right amygdala post-treatment, and right amygdala increases to fearful versus neutral faces were predictive of clinical improvements at 1-week.
The team found that depressive symptoms were significantly reduced in all patients at one week, and 47% showed a response at five weeks. There were decreases in blood flow to the temporal cortex, including the amygdala, and area associated with emotion processing, which correlated with the reduction in depressive symptoms.
Psilocybin with psychological support was associated with increased amygdala responses to emotional stimuli, an opposite effect to previous findings with SSRIs. This suggests fundamental differences in these treatments’ therapeutic actions, with SSRIs mitigating negative emotions and psilocybin allowing patients to confront and work through them.
Based on the present results, the team proposed that psilocybin with psychological support is a treatment approach that potentially revives emotional responsiveness in depression, enabling patients to reconnect with their emotions.
The Vienna Convention of 1971 suggested a scheduling system for all agreeing countries to adhere to, classifying drugs into categories of harm. 183 countries have now agreed to this convention, and it directly led to the creation of laws such as the US Psychotropic Substances Act and the UK’s Misuse of Drugs Act.
The Vienna Convention was designed to target the manufacturing of synthetic psychotropics like LSD and MDMA; however, psilocybin is a naturally occurring substance. Similarly to the legal status of the natural psychedelic ayahuasca, the legal status of psilocybin can be left up to interpretation in many countries, even those that are party to the Vienna Convention.
Despite this, most countries have decided to treat psilocybin as a schedule I drug, imposing unreasonable and harsh punishments for its possession and sale.
Now let’s examine another psychedelic, ayahuasca. Ayahuasca is an Amazonian plant mixture that is capable of inducing altered states of consciousness, usually lasting between 4 to 8 hours after ingestion. Ranging from mildly stimulating to extremely visionary, ayahuasca is used primarily as a medicine and as a shamanic means of communication, typically in a ceremonial session under the guidance of an experienced drinker.
The main ingredient of this jungle tea is a vine, Banisteriopsis caapi, which like the tea itself is also called ayahuasca (which means ‘vine of the soul’ or ‘vine with a soul’). The secondary ingredient is either chacruna (Psychotria viridis) or chagropanga (Diplopterys cabrerana), plants that contain a relatively high amount of the psychedelic substance dimethyltryptamine (DMT).
In a new study published in the journal of Scientific Reports, researchers at University of Exeter and University College London reported that people who used ayahuasca in the past year reported lower levels of problematic alcohol use than those who had taken LSD or psilocybin mushrooms.
Ayahuasca users also reported higher levels of well-being than both their psychedelic-using peers and those who don’t use psychedelics at all.
This new published piece of research on ayahuasca is the largest and most authoritative piece study on this matter to date. The findings suggest this “Shaman’s Brew” might also offer a treatment for depression.
Researchers used an online Global Drug Survey data of over 96,000 participants which measured the Personal Wellbeing Index (a tool used by researchers around the world which examines things such as personal relationships, connection with the community, and a sense of achievement.
Of the respondents, 527 were ayahuasca users, 18,138 LSD or psilocybin mushrooms users, and 78, 236 did not take any psychedelic drugs.
“These findings lend some support to the notion that ayahuasca could be an important and powerful tool in treating depression and alcohol use disorders,” said lead author Will Lawn, PhD, of University College London, in a statement. “Recent research has demonstrated ayahuasca’s potential as a psychiatric medicine, and our current study provides further evidence that it may be a safe and promising treatment.”
This new paper doesn’t include any new experimental results, rather it compiles survey results in a way that provides more evidence that ayahuasca could potentially be therapeutic for people suffering from mental health issues.
Researchers also wrote that long-term ayahuasca use does not seem to negatively affect cognitive abilities, and it isn’t associated with addictive use or worsening mental health issues.
“Several observational studies have examined the long-term effects of regular ayahuasca use in the religious context.”
“In this work, long-term ayahuasca use has not been found to impact on cognitive ability, produce addiction or worsen mental health problems.”
“In fact, some of these observational studies suggest that ayahuasca use is associated with less problematic alcohol and drug use, and better mental health and cognitive functioning,” wrote the researchers.
In a new study published Tuesday in Cell Reports, researchers at the University of California, Davis, administered several psychedelics, including DMT, LSD, MDMA and psilocin to flies and rats, in which they concluded that these substances resulted in neurons forming more synapse connections in their brains.
The results indicate psychedelics may be very effective in treating depression, addiction, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“These are among the most powerful drugs known to affect brain function, and our research shows that they can alter the structure of the brain as well. Changes in neuronal structure are important because they can impact how the brain is wired, and consequently, how we feel, think and behave,” said Dr David Olson, who lead the research team.
According to Dr Olson, one of the main signs of depression is that parts of a neuron that branch out to form connections with other neurons tend to “shrivel up” in the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that is critical in regulating emotion and anxiety.
“Thanks to studies on ketamine, slow-acting antidepressants and chronic stress models of depression,, scientists now know that depression is not simply the result of a “chemical imbalance,” as pharmaceutical companies like to suggest. It is far more complicated and involves structural changes in key neural circuits that regulate emotion, anxiety, memory and reward,” Dr Olson added.
“The rapid effects of ketamine on mood and plasticity are truly astounding,” said Dr Olson. “The big question we were trying to answer was whether or not other compounds are capable of doing what ketamine does.”
Still, there is a downside to ketamine, it is addictive and thus has a potential for abuse, and here lies the importance of this study. Since many psychedelics have showed a low potential for addiction, but acquire similar antidepressant properties as ketamine, they seemed like a new hope for promoting neurite growth as a way to fight mental disorders.
“We specifically designed these experiments to mimic previous studies of ketamine so that we might directly compare these two compounds,” the researchers wrote. “To a first approximation, they appear to be remarkably similar.”
After administering a range of psychedelics (DMT, psilocin, MDMA and LSD) to flies and rats, the researchers found that they all promoted neurite growth. However, LSD was especially effective compared to the other substances, while ibogaine, was “the only psychedelic tested that had absolutely no effect.”
“Ketamine is no longer our only option,” Olson said. “Our work demonstrates that there are a number of distinct chemical scaffolds capable of promoting plasticity like ketamine, providing additional opportunities for medicinal chemists to develop safer and more effective alternatives.”
After the 1970s Controlled Substance Act criminalized all psychedelics, research on psychedelics was halted for decades, imagine what we would have learned from these substances and the advances we would have made regarding the mental health epidemic and existential crises spreading all around the world.
Hopefully, this all is changing with the efforts of different organizations at the forefront of this promising endeavor.
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