Very recently, The US Food and Drug Administration has given a group of psychiatrists its blessing to dose patients with magic mushrooms in therapy sessions. This week, the FDA granted “Breakthrough Therapy” designation to COMPASS Pathways’ psilocybin-assisted therapy for treatment-resistant depression. The London-based life sciences company, backed in part by Peter Thiel, will use the psychedelic drug psilocybin, the active chemical extracted from magic mushrooms, to treat patients in Europe and North America in a Phase 2b trial to determine the optimal dose of the drug.
Hallucination inducing substances have been mostly banned for decades due to the war on drugs that was rooted in racist and bigoted ideals, but in the past 15 years, drugs like LSD, psilocybin, and MDMA, also known as ecstasy, have shown promise in treating conditions like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and addiction. In a health system that severly lacks the resources for it’s patients suffering from various mental health conditions, the substances may be the answer.
During the 1950’s and 60’s psychedelics were considered to be a promising potential treatment for numerous mental health disorders, with more than 1,000 studies taking place. But the drugs quickly became controversial.
Popularised by musicians and other celebrities, the recreational use of psychedelics, and particularly LSD, spread during the 1960’s as they became increasingly associated with the countercultural movements of the time. Press coverage of the drugs often focused on bad trips and the supposed moral degeneracy they induced rather than developments in the scientific field.
Some scientists – notably former Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary – became evangelical about the benefits of the drugs, blurring the boundaries between science and advocacy. Amid fears about their safety and a growing moral panic, psychedelic drugs were made illegal in the US in 1968.
A further UN convention on the drugs in 1971 effectively ended scientific research, because it led member states to make them illegal and classify them as Schedule 1 drugs – those deemed to have no medicinal benefit. For decades, research dried up as scientists moved into other areas, but the rising problem of depression, anxiety, PTSD and other conditions change the course of our relationship with these substances.
In early December, the FDA gave initial approval to plans for a phase III clinical trial of MDMA to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. The study, by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), is expected to involve 230 people over 2 to 3 years.
Also in December, a team at Johns Hopkins, including Johnson, released results of a study that tested psilocybin in a group of 51 cancer patients who had symptoms of depression and anxiety. They found high doses — roughly two to three times the typical recreational dose — sharply reduced those symptoms, and four out of five had “clinically significant decreases in depressed mood and anxiety” 6 months later.
Researchers at London’s Imperial College used a variety of scanning techniques to map for the first time how the brain responds to the effects of LSD. In March, they reported that the drug’s effects correlated with “marked changes” in blood flow and the brain’s communication network, giving scientists new insights into the physical responses it produces.
In 2014, a Swiss-led study found that low doses of LSD, combined with psychotherapy, reduced anxiety in a study of a dozen patients with life-threatening diseases, “suggesting that larger controlled studies are warranted.”
The new studies come at a time when attitudes toward drugs are shifting dramatically. The widespread abuse of prescription opioid painkillers is widely discussed as a public health issue rather than strictly a matter for police, while eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational cannabis. After it was asked by some members of Congress, the Drug Enforcement Administration postponed plans to ban the herbal supplement kratom, which scientists say may be useful to combat addiction and chronic pain.
There are more than 400 research projects now underway involving marijuana alone, Baer says, and he’s not aware of any drug study the agency has rejected or halted. In addition, he said the agency has been having talks with scientists about streamlining the agency’s approval process. Studies found that psilocybin reduced depression in 80% of patients with life-threatening cancer and, separately, were much more effective at getting people to quit smoking than current treatments when combined with cognitive behavioural therapy. With findings totally flooring scientists, it may be time we start shifting our attitude towards unconventional treatments.
Although Molly and ‘shrooms haven’t attained home-remedy status, they may indeed be rolling into the mental health professional’s toolkit in the not-so-distant future.