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“Psychedelics” could find new lease on life—in the doctor’s office

Aug. 18, 2010
Courtesy of Nature Publishing Group
and World Science staff

The au­thor Al­dous Hux­ley spec­u­lat­ed in the 1950s that cer­tain hal­lu­cin­ati­on-inducing drugs—most of them now il­le­gal—could serve as aids to spir­it­u­al growth. 

Some pre­s­ent-day doc­tors are, in­stead, in­creas­ingly dis­cussing a more mun­dane func­ti­on for these con­tro­ver­sial sub­stances: as medicines.

Dried psi­lo­cy­bin mush­rooms, also called "mag­ic mush­rooms," or "'shrooms," con­tain­ing the hal­lucinogen psi­lo­cy­bin. Al­though il­le­gal and sub­ject to abuse, they have been used in tra­di­tion­al Na­tive Amer­i­can cul­tures for spir­it­u­al pur­poses. Re­search­ers are pro­pos­ing that these and re­lat­ed drugs may al­so have ther­a­peu­tic val­ue un­der con­trolled con­di­tions. (Im­age cour­te­sy Or­e­gon State Po­lice)


An ar­ti­cle in the Aug. 20 is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Na­ture Re­views in Neu­ro­sci­ence pro­poses that “psych­e­del­ics” might be use­ful in low doses as a treat­ment for psy­chi­at­ric dis­or­ders such as de­pres­si­on, anx­i­e­ty and obsessive-compulsive dis­or­ders.

“Re­cent ad­vanc­es in our un­der­stand­ing of the neuro­bi­ol­o­gy of psych­e­del­ics… have led to re­newed in­ter­est in [their] clin­i­cal po­ten­tial,” wrote the au­thors, Franz X. Vol­len­wei­der and Mi­chael Ko­me­ter of the Uni­vers­ity of Zu­rich in Switz­er­land.

The drugs may re­duce clin­i­cal symp­toms in peo­ple with var­i­ous psy­chi­at­ric dis­or­ders or with chron­ic pain, ac­cord­ing to the au­thors. The drugs un­der con­sid­er­ati­on in­clude sub­stances such as ly­ser­gic ac­id di­ethy­la­mide, pop­u­larly known as LSD or “ac­id”; and psil­o­cy­bin, the mind-altering com­po­nent in so-called mag­ic mush­rooms.

Re­cent brain im­ag­ing da­ta, the au­thors wrote, show that the drugs might achieve ther­a­peu­tic aims by act­ing on brain cir­cuits and brain-chem­i­cal trans­mis­si­on sys­tems known to be al­tered in peo­ple with de­pres­si­on and anx­i­e­ty. The rel­e­vant brain chem­i­cal path­ways, al­so called neu­ro­trans­mit­ter sys­tems, in­clude ser­o­to­nin and glu­ta­mate sys­tems, they added.

The ther­a­peu­tic ef­fects of psych­e­del­ics can oc­cur at low doses that don’t in­duce psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­in­tegr­ati­on or true hal­lu­cin­ati­ons, the au­thors went on.

“Psychedelic drugs have long held a spe­cial fascin­ati­on for man­kind be­cause they pro­duce an al­tered state of con­scious­ness... char­ac­ter­ized by dis­tor­ti­ons of per­cep­ti­on, hal­lu­cin­ati­ons or vi­si­ons, ec­stasy, dis­so­lu­ti­on of self bound­aries and the ex­pe­ri­ence of un­ion with the world,” the pair wrote.

“As plant-derived ma­te­ri­als, they have been used traditi­onally by many in­dig­e­nous cul­tures in med­i­cal and re­li­gious prac­tice for cen­turies, if not mil­len­nia.”

Re­search in­to the ef­fects of psych­e­del­ics has long been re­strict­ed be­cause of the neg­a­tive con­not­ati­ons of the drugs, but the au­thors ar­gue that more re­search in­to the clin­i­cal po­ten­tial of these drugs is war­ranted. More­o­ver, they added, be­cause cer­tain ef­fects of psych­e­del­ic drugs re­sem­ble some of the symp­toms of psy­cho­sis, the drugs could be used to study the brain ba­sis of psy­chot­ic dis­or­ders such as schiz­o­phre­nia.

“The most re­cent work has pro­vid­ed com­pel­ling ev­i­dence that clas­si­cal hal­lu­cinogens pri­marily act as ag­o­nists,” or stim­u­la­tors, of mo­lec­u­lar struc­tures in the brain that al­so re­spond to the nat­u­ral brain chem­i­cal ser­o­to­nin, they con­tin­ued. 

Ser­o­to­nin is a chem­i­cal mes­sen­ger that trans­mits nerve sig­nals be­tween cells. It is in­volved in in­flu­enc­ing mood, pro­mot­ing feel­ings of well-be­ing, and in sleep.

Early psy­chi­a­trists not­ed “that LSD can en­hance self-awareness and fa­cil­i­tate the recollecti­on of, and re­lease from, emoti­onally load­ed mem­o­ries,” Vol­len­wei­der and Kome­ter wrote. “By 1965 there were more than 1,000 pub­lished clin­i­cal stud­ies that re­ported prom­is­ing ther­a­peu­tic ef­fects in over 40,000 sub­jects.”

“LSD, psil­o­cy­bin and, spo­rad­ic­ally, ke­ta­mine have been re­ported to have ther­a­peu­tic ef­fects in pa­tients with anx­i­e­ty and obsessive-compulsive dis­or­ders (OCD), de­pres­si­on, sex­u­al dysfunc­ti­on and al­co­hol addicti­on, and to re­lieve pain and anx­i­e­ty in pa­tients with ter­mi­nal can­cer,” they added.

“Un­for­tu­nately, through­out the 1960s and 1970s LSD and re­lat­ed drugs be­came in­creas­ingly as­so­ci­at­ed with cul­tur­al rebelli­on; they were widely pop­u­larized as drugs of abuse and were de­picted in the me­dia as highly dan­ger­ous,” the pair wrote. Re­search in­to psych­e­del­ics was there­af­ter “se­verely re­strict­ed,” they wrote, leav­ing “many questi­ons un­an­swered.”


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The author Aldous Huxley speculated in the 1950s that certain hallucination-inducing drugs—most of them now illegal—could serve as aids to spiritual growth. Some present-day doctors are, instead, increasingly discussing a more mundane function for these controversial substances: as medicines. An article in the Aug. 20 issue of the research journal Nature Reviews in Neuroscience proposes that “psychedelics” might be useful in low doses as a treatment for psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders. “Recent advances in our understanding of the neurobiology of psychedelics… have led to renewed interest in [their] clinical potential,” wrote the authors, Franz X. Vollenweider and Michael Kometer of the University of Zurich in Switzerland. The drugs may reduce clinical symptoms in people with various psychiatric disorders and in people with chronic pain, according to the authors. The drugs under consideration include substances such as lysergic acid diethylamide, popularly known as LSD or “acid”; and psilocybin, the mind-altering component in so-called magic mushrooms. Recent brain imaging data, the authors wrote, show that the drugs might achieve therapeutic aims by acting on brain circuits and brain-chemical transmission systems known to be altered in people with depression and anxiety. The relevant brain chemical pathways, also called neurotransmitter systems, include serotonin and glutamate systems, they added. The therapeutic effects of psychedelics can occur at low doses that don’t induce psychological disintegration or true hallucinations, the authors went on. “Psychedelic drugs have long held a special fascination for mankind because they produce an altered state of consciousness that is characterized by distortions of perception, hallucinations or visions, ecstacy, dissolution of self boundaries and the experience of union with the world,” the pair wrote. “As plant-derived materials, they have been used traditionally by many indigenous cultures in medical and religious practice for centuries, if not millennia.” Research into the effects of psychedelics has long been restricted because of the negative connotations of the drugs, but the authors argue that more research into the clinical potential of these drugs is warranted. Moreover, they added, because certain effects of psychedelic drugs resemble some of the symptoms of psychosis, the drugs could be used to study the brain basis of psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia. “The most recent work has provided compelling evidence that classical hallucinogens primarily act as agonists,” or stimulators, of molecular structures in the brain that also respond to the natural brain chemical serotonin, they continued. Serotonin is a chemical messenger that transmits nerve signals between cells. It is involved in influencing mood, promoting feelings of well-being, and in sleep. Early psychiatrists noted “that LSD can enhance self-awareness and facilitate the recollection of, and release from, emotionally loaded memories,” Vollenweider and Kometer wrote. “By 1965 there were more than 1,000 published clinical studies that reported promising therapeutic effects in over 40,000 subjects.” “LSD, psilocybin and, sporadically, ketamine have been reported to have therapeutic effects in patients with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD), depression, sexual dysfunction and alcohol addiction, and to relieve pain and anxiety in patients with terminal cancer,” they added. “Unfortunately, throughout the 1960s and 1970s LSD and related drugs became increasingly associated with cultural rebellion; they were widely popularized as drugs of abuse and were depicted in the media as highly dangerous,” the pair wrote. Research into psychedelics was thereafter “severely restricted,” they wrote, leaving “many questions unanswered.”