From MDMA to Mushrooms, Psychedelics Are Finding New Life In Labs

March 20th 2015

Alex Mierjeski

This week's landmark announcement that the Drug Enforcement Administration is allowing clinical trials of MDMA along with psychotherapy, comes amid a host of new research that points to the potential successes for medical application of psychedelic drugs. Yet despite promising research, and shifting cultural and scientific perceptions of a once-vilified drug genre, federal classifications and prohibitions could still prove to be a hurdle for researchers.

For those who have gotten federal approval to research psychedelics, the results have been exciting. Earlier this month, new research in the Journal of Psychopharmacology showed that certain aspects of some psychedelic drugs could hold the key to long-term stress reduction, and reduced likelihood of suicidal tendencies in users.

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Using data pooled over five years from over 190,000 adults, researchers from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Alabama at Birmingham found that users of certain nonaddictive psychedelic drugs had notable effects on mental health. The study found that 19 percent of users reported reduced likelihood of psychological distress in the past month, were 14 percent less likely to have suicidal thoughts, were 29 percent less likely to plan a suicide, and 36 percent less likely to attempt it.

“Our general societal impression of these drugs is they make people go crazy or are associated with psychological harm, but our data point to the potential psychological benefits from these drugs,” Matthew W. Johnson, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins said in a statement to ATTN.

Researchers found that while illegal, some drugs — primarily psilocybin and LSD -- could hold significant medical potential. “[These drugs] could be breakthrough medical treatments that we’ve been ignoring for the past 30 years,” Johnson said. “We need to carefully examine these cautiously and thoroughly.”

While the study controlled for “many relevant variables,” researchers still couldn’t draw a definitive correlation between the psychedelics and the positive effects, because patients may have already been psychologically healthy before using the drugs. However, researchers said that the promising results “probably reflect a benefit from psychedelics.”

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Though mushrooms and other psychedelics were a popular subject of study among scientists in the late 1950s, since 1970, they have been recreationally criminalized and classified alongside heroin as a Schedule 1 drug, with no accepted medical use. This has made further research efforts difficult, requiring time-consuming vetting processes by government agencies for interested laboratories. That hasn’t stopped researchers from pursuit, but authorities still warn that strict precautions are necessary to cushion the known dangers of using psychedelics recreationally. Since being swept up in the heady paranoia of Nixon's Controlled Substances Act, and the subsequent War on Drugs, psychedelics languished for decades. But the slow decay of the War on Drugs, along with widespread scientific interest in renewed research has brought about something of an encouraging shift.

MDMA Pills

The Hopkins study is just the latest in a wave of renewed medical and scientific interest and research into a drug category maligned for its longstanding association with addled concert-goers and dingy hives of teenage self-discovery. In fact, in February of this year, Michael Pollan, the renowned food writer and professor, penned a 10,000-word piece for the New Yorker on the resurgence of serious psychedelic research––and its exciting, promising results.

Like the latest study, much of the emerging research has focused on the potentials of psilocybin, the psychoactive compound in certain mushrooms. In multiple studies, guided dosage has been shown to help patients cope with things like depression, loss, terminal illness or even death, after experiencing the restructured, celestial worldview commonly associated with taking psychedelic mushrooms. In short, the way psilocybin encourages unique communication between the brain’s circuits allows patients to emerge with evolved perspectives that could prove groundbreaking. Research on MRI scans of the “tripping” brain published recently in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface showed surprising connections between the regions central to our consciousness (perhaps explaining why users describe seeing sounds and hearing colors), triggering radically different—if temporary—brain function.

It is this influence that is encouraging researchers, who are confronted with psychological disorders that could be helped by "breaks" in negative patterns of thought by, say, a temporarily altered world view. “One can imagine that breaking any pattern that prevents a ‘proper’ functioning of the brain can be helpful,” Paul Expert, who led the MRI study at King’s College London, told the New York Times. According to the Heffter Research Institute, which supports current research into psychedelics, psilocybin studies are underway at the University of New Mexico, UCLA, NYU, John Hopkins University, and the Heffter-Zürich Center. Treatment areas being studied include alcoholism, the ancillary emotional effects of cancer, obsessive-compulsive disorder, serotonin receptor research, spirituality and even PTSD.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), controlled settings can provide a “safe and rigorous” method to study the effects of the drug in humans. But the agency stresses adherence to strict regulations in studies that “must be justified by a thorough and rigorous assessment of scientific merit and ethical issues, including the balance of risks and benefits and the voluntary provision of informed consent,” the agency told ATTN in response to questions about the discrepancy between the drug’s scheduling and the promising research on it.

“The main concern we have at NIDA in relation to this work is that the public will walk away with the message that psilocybin is a safe drug to use. In fact, its adverse effects are well known, although not completely predictable,” Nora Volkow, director of the NIDA told the New Yorker. “Psilocybin can trigger psychosis in susceptible individuals and cause other adverse psychological effects, such as paranoia and extreme anxiety. Progress has been made of decreasing use of hallucinogens reported, particularly in young people—we would not want to see that trend altered.”

But without releasing it onto the general public for haphazard consumption, further classification relaxation could pave the way for accessibility and widespread research of the sort that has already proved useful in numerous settings, and potentially groundbreaking. “If it proves useful to people who are really suffering, we should look at it,” Thomas R. Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health told the New Yorker. “Just because it is a psychedelic doesn’t disqualify it in our eyes.”