Psychedelic Research — A Scientific Renaissance with Promising Results

We live in a time that many refer to as a psychedelic renaissance, because scientists around the globe are rediscovering the psychedelic substances’ immense potential to heal.

This is the second time that the scientific world has shown interest in psychedelics, but unlike the somewhat questionable research methods of Timothy Leary and his contemporaries during the ’60s, the modern research is done by the book.

I find this newfound scientific interest to be a truly joyous event, because I’ve also experienced the benefits of these compounds first-hand.

What is psychedelic research?

This type of research studies the therapeutic use of psychedelic substances under supervised and guided conditions.

There are three main types of harm associated with all mind-altering substances: dependency, toxicity and unpredictable behavior.

In the case of psychedelics, the dependency potential is extremely low. In other words, developing an addiction to these substances is highly unlikely.

Toxicity of psychedelics is also very low. They are considered as one of the least toxic mind-altering substances in existence.

Unpredictable behavior definitely poses the greatest risk with psychedelics. That’s why sessions where these compounds are used are always performed under the supervision and guidance of skilled professionals.

In essence, contemporary science copied the way indigenous communities perform psychedelics sessions, who are all aware of the fact that an experienced guide is needed for the entire experience to go well.

The long history of psychedelics use

The term “psychedelic” was coined by an English psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond, from the words “psyche” which means mind or soul and “delos/delic”, which means to reveal.

Psychedelic substances can therefore be considered as soul revealing, or mind manifesting.

The use of these compounds has a very rich history in many different cultures.

From the curanderos’ tradition of Central America and their use of psilocybin mushrooms, through ayahuasca (a potent psychedelic brew which contains DMT) use in the Amazon basin, the indigenous Huichol people of Mexico using peyote cactus (which contains mescaline), to the indigenous people of Siberia who use Amanita muscaria mushroom—the use of psychedelics is obviously widespread.

All these cultures have long been implementing psychedelic substances as a tool for psychological healing, spirituality, and a profound insight about the psyche, but also about the nature of the universe as a whole.

Psychedelics are extremely cathartic in nature, allowing the individual to overcome negative experiences and emotional trauma.

Because of these traits they are especially beneficial for people with psychological conditions such as (severe and treatment-resistant) depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, PTSD, anxiety and addiction.

During the 1950s, the Westerners first started attending these psychedelic ceremonies, and their experiences were showcased in Life Magazine.

How has the law impacted psychedelic research?

The modern history of psychedelics is filled with controversy, such as CIA performing tests on soldiers and volunteers with LSD, mescaline, psilocybin and other substances, looking to weaponize them.

One of the testees, the novelist Ken Kesey later began riding across the States with his friends in a psychedelically-painted school van, and gave a ton of people free LSD, kickstarting the 60s.

psychedelic van

Later on as the counterculture gained momentum, so many people were protesting and refusing to participate in the Vietnam conflict, that the American government declared war on all mind-altering substances, including psychedelics, of course.

How long has psychedelic research been banned?

Over the course of several years and culminating in 1970, substances including LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, DMT and cannabis became Schedule I drugs in the US, starting the infamous War on Drugs.

Psychedelics became illegal worldwide in 1971 (through a UN convention), which stopped all official scientific research of these compounds for almost two decades.

Is psychedelic research legal?

Even though they remain completely illegal, certain academic institutions were given permission to perform research on these substances.

Countries that have permitted some type of psychedelic research programs include United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Israel, and Switzerland.

Current psychedelic research

In 1990, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) approved a five-year clinical research of DMT at the University of New Mexico, which was led by Dr Rick Strassman.

N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) is a chemical compound that is found in every mammal species on Earth, and it’s also present in hundreds of plants.

It is the active ingredient in the ayahuasca brew used by the indeginous people of the Amazon basin, and is considered the most potent psychedelic known to man.

Over the course of five years of Dr Rick Strassman’s research, 60 volunteers were given approximately 400 doses of DMT, and have experienced powerful visions, spiritual experiences and a general sense that this life journey was of tremendous importance.

Strassman subsequently wrote a book about his research with DMT called “DMT: The Spirit Molecule”, and there’s also a wonderful documentary on the same topic, hosted by Joe Rogan.

Even though this research didn’t focus on the beneficiality of DMT for any particular condition or disorder (unlike the other studies that we’ll be covering later on), it is definitely important as it rekindled the scientific community’s interest in psychedelics.

Which medical schools conduct psychedelic research?

Studies on the effects of psychedelics are currently performed in 4 scientific institutions:

  • New York University (NYU), New York
  • Imperial College London, England
  • Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland
  • University of New Mexico (UNM), New Mexico

Psychedelic research NYU

The team from the University of New York focused their work on psilocybin-assisted therapy for terminal cancer patients with end-of-life depression and anxiety. (3)

They published a series of papers that describe how meaningful these experiences were for the participants.

Seventy percent of the volunteers described the “trip” as one of the top five most meaningful experiences of their lives, and 90% of the cancer patients reported an increase in their general well-being.

For these participants who were very demoralized prior to the study, psilocybin created several different effects:

  • The sensation of sacredness (users reported feelings of wonder, humility and astonishment)
  • The sensation of unity (between humans, nature, and the universe as a whole)
  • The sensation of transcendence (transcending time and space, and past/present/future, which make up our collectively-shared consensus reality)

This compound drastically lessened the suffering of these individuals, which has truly profound implications, as it can be utilized not only as a tool for changing our lives, but it can also help us to die with love, gratitude and peace.

Psychedelic research UK

The research team from Imperial College of London conducted a study with 20 participants (4) who suffered from treatment resistant depression, and 11 volunteers reported significant improvements in their symptoms after only two psilocybin sessions.

The participants who experienced great diminishment in their symptoms continued to feel this way in the 6-month follow-up, which showed that the psilocybin treatment caused a long-lasting effect in these individuals.

The reason why psilocybin therapy had such a powerful impact is because it “attacks” the root causes of depression, and not just the symptoms that are associated with it.

Unlike the pharmaceutical anti-depression drugs (SSRIs) which have to be consumed on a daily basis and often cause severe side effects, research shows that psilocybin causes immediate relief with very long-lasting effects, and it doesn’t create any side effects.

psychedelic ilustration

Participants who felt life-changing relief from psilocybin reported similar experiences that can be categorized into 3 groups:

  • The psychedelic experience allows the hidden unconscious to become accessible (by visiting traumas from the past), and provides new insights about the negative patterns in our lives
  • Emotional liberation (from avoidance to acceptance)
  • A process of reconnection with oneself and with everything around us, with powerful feelings of harmony and unity

The effects of psilocybin on depression can be considered extremely important in today’s society, because this debilitating disorder is one of the leading causes of suicide worldwide.

Fifty percent of all depression-sufferers don’t respond to antidepressants, and around 20% don’t respond to any conventional type of treatment.

Psychedelic research Johns Hopkins

Led by Dr. Roland Griffiths, the research team at Johns Hopkins University conducted a series of studies with the active ingredient in “magic” mushrooms, including:

  • Inducing mystical experiences in healthy volunteers who haven’t had contact with psilocybin prior to the study (1)
  • Using psilocybin as a habit-breaking tool for people who are addicted to nicotine (2)

This research team is also working on a new study which will observe the effects of psilocybin on religious leaders from various denominations.

Psychedelic research UNM

Scientists from the University of New Mexico were looking into the effectiveness of psilocybin for alcohol addiction. (5)

This trial also had very promising results, showing great improvement and long-lasting abstinence for several participants (some abstained for a nine-month period after the psilocybin treatment).

Psychedelic science

Technology immensely progressed during the last several decades, and these advancements have given scientists precious insights into how these compounds create their effects.

This is mostly achieved through sophisticated brain scans, which reveal truly fascinating discoveries.

Advanced scientific methods in psychedelic research help researchers to observe, quantify and better understand the changes that take place when a patient is under the influence of the substances.

Default mode network

Compounds including psilocybin, LSD and DMT affect the mind so it functions in a very flexible way.

They achieve this effect by temporarily halting the default mode network, which can be described as a network of neural pathways that allow specific areas of the brain to exchange information, while preventing other areas to communicate.

What’s very interesting about the default mode network is that it develops throughout life, and children have a much more chaotic and freewheeling mind than grown ups.

Over time, the brain evolves and becomes more sophisticated, streamlined and efficient, but at the same time more constrained.

The default mode network is active only when we are awake, and it’s especially active when we’re engaged in autobiographical narration, which is that little voice in our head.

The brain becomes even more constrained when a person is suffering from depression and OCD, and both these conditions are characterized by repetitive (ruminating) thoughts.

The default mode network also becomes hyperactive when people experience depression and OCD, and psychedelics briefly impair the functioning of this network, allowing a more unconstrained cognition, which greatly resembles a child-like state.

acid

LSD brain imaging from the Imperial College of London, showing a very significant increase of communication between different regions of the brain, but also a diminishment in the functioning of the default mode network, which is closely correlated with ego dissolution

The psychedelic state renders the brain to become very flexible, allowing valuable insight into the unconscious, and also causes “de-patterning”, meaning it temporarily stops the brain from creating repetitive thought patterns.

simplified visualization of the persistence homological scaffolds

A graphical representation of brain-region communication under the influence of psilocybin (also from the Imperial College of London). The left image represents normal functioning, and on the right is a brain in psychedelic state.

De-patterning positively affects our outlook and behavior, and facilitates a transition into a more open and less-anxious state of mind. The temporarily disconnected default mode network also allows a new perspective on life to be established, which is extremely important for people who have depression.

MDMA for PTSD

3,4-Methyl​enedioxy​methamphetamine (MDMA) belongs to a group of psychedelics called empathogens, which increase empathy and bonding.

This substance also seems to be unmatched in its ability to take away fear, which was tested in a pilot study with people with post-traumatic stress disorder. (6)

The biggest issue with PTSD is that it’s very hard to access the trauma, mostly because it’s unconscious, but also when anything gets close to it, it creates a huge fear response.

MDMA seems to take away the fear, allowing the patient to overcome the trauma.

After the study, 83% of participants no longer met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, compared to classical pharmaceuticals which have about 30% success-rate.

This magnificent success-rate was sustained after a 3,5 year follow-up, and it seems that MDMA-assisted therapy is the best possible treatment for PTSD.

The sponsor of this study was Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), and this substance is currently under phase 3 clinical trials (which is the last phase before a substance becomes a medicine in the US).

After the amazing success of this research, the study was replicated in Israel, Colorado, Canada and Switzerland.

The Beckley Foundation LSD Microdose Study

The Beckley Foundation is a UK-based non-government organization whose purpose is to influence drug policy reform by conducting evidence-based research on psychedelic substances.

This organization in collaboration with the Imperial College is crowdfunding one million dollars for an LSD microdose study for cognitive function.

Conclusion

When we take into account that we’re living in a capitalist society, it becomes evident that the interests of the common man are nowhere in sight.

Never in human history has there been such a concentration of wealth on the top of the “pyramid”, and this profit-driven state of affairs has resulted in a global epidemic of psychological disorders, where depression and anxiety reign supreme, and in my opinion this is anything but accidental.

A consumer who is unhappy, unsatisfied and unstable is far more susceptible to all sorts of manipulation.

A great percentage of the population has equated happiness with status, beauty, fame and wealth. Psychedelics can help us to fight the consequences of this imposed negative programming.

One of the main benefits of these substances is that they temporarily abolish the ego, and by doing this, they reconnect us to everything.

The last time psychedelics were consumed by a large number of people resulted in a great cultural upheaval in the 1960s, which started the war on drugs, making these substances illegal worldwide.

From the available research, it is crystal-clear that psychedelics can profoundly influence a tormented mind, and if these substances were consumed under supervision and in safe environments on a global scale, I am certain that we would see another powerful cultural revolution.

Psilocybin, DMT and LSD liberate the consciousness, by showing us that there is more to reality than what meets the eye. They point out that we’re not separated from anything in existence, which can truly change the doors of perception.

When we take into consideration just how many people are suffering from psychological disorders in 2019, it’s clear that psychedelics can become a tool that will push our struggling culture into more enlightened territories.

References

  1. Roland R Griffiths, Matthew W Johnson, Michael A Carducci, Annie Umbricht, William A Richards, Brian D Richards, Mary P Cosimano, and Margaret A Klinedinst; Psilocybin produces substantial and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer: A randomized double-blind trial; 2016 Dec; 1181–1197
  2. Carhart-Harris R, Bolstridge M, Day C, Rucker J, Watts R, Erritzoe D, Kaelen M, Giribaldi B, Bloomfield M, Pilling S, Rickard J, Forbes B, Feilding A, Taylor D, Curran H, Nutt D; Psilocybin with psychological support for treatment-resistant depression: six-month follow-up; 2018 Feb; 399-408 
  3. R. R. Griffiths, M.W. Johnson, W. A. Richards, B.D. Richards, U. McCann, and R. Jesse; Psilocybin occasioned mystical-type experiences: Immediate and persisting dose-related effects; 2012 Dec
  4. Johnson MW, Garcia-Romeu A, Griffiths RR; Long-term follow-up of psilocybin-facilitated smoking cessation; 2017 Jan; 55-60
  5. Michael P Bogenschutz, Alyssa A Forcehimes, Jessica A Pommy, Claire E Wilcox, PCR Barbosa and Rick J Strassman; Psilocybin-assisted treatment for alcohol dependence: A proof-of-concept study; 2015; 289–299
  6. Peter Oehen, Rafael Traber, Verena Widmer and Ulrich Schnyder; A randomized, controlled pilot study of MDMA (±3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine)-assisted psychotherapy for treatment of resistant, chronic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); 2013; 40–52
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