In the midst of the “Ice Bucket Challenge” craze of going to help raise awareness for another worthy cause, psychedelic research. I’m going to approach this article a little differently; I’m going to write this as more of a research (past and current) based summary than most typical articles. This is a subject that I am deeply fascinated with and a field that I dream of getting to work in sometime in the future. With that being said, let’s get started!
Face it; millions of people are battling addiction and alcoholism with little success as traditional methods are failing. Using psychedelic drugs, such as LSD, can help treat those who are battling addiction and alcoholism; this treatment can be a beneficial option because, psychedelic drugs can have positive impact on mood and depression which can, therefore, greatly impact treatment success.
Psychedelic drugs such as LSD, psilocybin mushrooms (aka “magic mushrooms” or “shrooms”), as well as MDMA and others, are currently Schedule I substances, meaning they have a high potential for abuse and serve no “known” medical purpose. Research started over 40 years ago and more recently could argue otherwise, however. By 1965 alone, some 40,000 subjects were shown to respond positively to various psychedelic therapies and over 1,000 research studies were published (X.,Vollenweider, Kometer 2010, pg. 642). Of course with the popular use of psychedelics in the 1960’s, psychedelics became considered dangerous drugs of abuse. Because many of them became scheduled I controlled substances, funding was severely restricted and much of the research was abandoned in the early 1970’s. Since then it’s become a controversial topic; psychedelic drugs have held a sense of taboo and the stigma of being “brain rotting” chemicals that make a person go insane. Many scientists, medical professionals, and organizations know this is far from the truth and they are working tirelessly to pick up where previous research left off and to prove that psychedelics do, in fact, have many positive, medicinal effects on the human body and mind.
How they work
To understand the nature of psychedelics, one must know what they do and how they work. Psychedelic substances, such as LSD and psilocybin, work by rising serotonin levels in the brain.
LSD (LSD-25) or lysergic acid diethylamide is a semisynthetic ergoline derived from ergot, a fungus that attacks rye grain. It was discovered and synthesized by Albert Hoffman in 1938. LSD (as well as psilocybin) works on 5-HT2A serotonin receptors (as well as other 5-HT receptors) and dopamine D2 receptors (X.,Vollenweider, Kometer 2010, pg. 644). Other than the well-noted hallucinogenic properties of LSD, “LSD can enhance self-awareness and facilitate the recollection and release of emotionally loaded memories” (X.,Vollenweider, Kometer 2010, pg. 642). The first research study on LSD in humans was conducted in 1947 and the first clinic using LSD in psycho-assisted was in 1953.
Psilocybin is the naturally occurring, hallucinogenic chemical compound that comes from psilocybin mushrooms. These mushrooms consist of over 200 species and grow around the world. Like LSD, psilocybin is a serotonin antagonist that binds to 5-HT2A receptors in the brain. Psilocybin is a tryptamine compound and a pro-drug that is quickly converted to psilocin by the body. The effects of LSD and psilocybin are very similar and both are considered non-addictive by the medical community and produce no ill or harmful long-term health effects or problems (Luscher & Ungless, 2006). Though used by humans for possibly thousands of years, the psilocybin compound was first isolated and synthesized by Albert Hoffman in 1958.
Psychedelics can treat alcoholism
Early published research on LSD showed promising results in the use of LSD as a treatment of alcoholism. In one of the most famous studies on the subject, published by Yale University and titled, “The use of LSD-25 in the treatment of alcoholism and other psychiatric problems” from 1961, 100 patients were picked from Hollywood Hospital in British Columbia, Canada, treated with LSD and made vast improvements (MacLean, MacDonald, Byrne, & Hubbard, 1961). Of the 100 patients studied, 61 were diagnosed alcoholics said to be “difficult cases.” 36 were stated to have failed the Alcoholics Anonymous program. The average years of uncontrolled drinking with the subjects were 14.36 years. These patients were hospitalized an average of 8.07 times for alcoholism in 3 years. Considering these facts, the research results were believed to be “unfavorable.” The other 39 patients in the study were classified as having “other psychiatric disabilities.” Treatment included; an autobiography written by the patients, a pre-treatment interview, and bloodwork. The dosage of LSD given ranged from 400-1500 gamma; the dosage was administered by mouth and was determined by the patient’s state of mind and defense mechanisms. The closer the patient was to self-acceptance of their condition the lower the typical dose needed. Post-treatment notes were made and the Blewett’s Psychedelic Scale A was used to rate the experience the next day. Interviews were conducted 1 and 3 weeks after each treatment. Follow-ups were conducted between 3-18 months after treatment with a 6 month questionnaire and survey completed by the patients. A psychiatric interview and appraisal were completed at the end of 1 year. The results showed that almost all patients (81%) were improved at the end of the study, “30 of the alcoholics and 22 of the other psychiatric patients were much improved; 16 and 13 of the additional alcoholics and other showed some improvement” (MacLean, et al., 1961, pg. 44). 4 patients with alcoholism and brain damage showed no improvement. Much improved status was rated on an overall improvement in daily life, relationships, work-habits, social habits and “complete abstinence from drinking” or only one drink attempted for a period of 12 months. Some improvement was rated as easily recognizable changes in the areas stated above and a definite reduction in the intake of alcohol compared to the previous 12 months. The most improvement showed was in the alcoholics without complications and alcoholism with personality disturbances, or non-alcoholics with personality disturbances or anxiety reaction neurosis. One of the patients, a 44 year old salesman, comment on the experience stating, “This experience has given me quite a bit of awakening and a real good look at myself. It seemed to clear a lot of garbage away; I can see and appreciate things about myself that I never knew existed before. Although it’s not a ‘cure-all’, it does make you see new ways to enjoying life and accepting the idea that alcohol isn’t a necessity” (MacLean, et al., 1961).
Psychedelics against depression & anxiety
Psychedelics have been showing promising results in major known triggers of addiction; those triggers are depression and anxiety. By utilizing psilocybin in psychotherapy, we can block these depressive triggers. According to Professor David Nutt (2012), professor of Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London,
“Psilocybin, especially, appears to stop patients from dwelling on themselves and their own perceived inadequacies. People with depression have overactive default mode networks and so ruminate on themselves, on their inadequacies, on their badness, that they are worthless, that they have failed – to an extent that is sometimes delusional. Psilocybin appears to block that activity and stops this obsessive rumination.”
This is important information; psilocybin appears to blocks off a part of the brain that is over active in people with depression. It seems that when people have negative and destructive opinions about themselves, they are likely to fall into a state of depression and self-doubt overtime. These negative behaviors can wreak havoc on health status and lead to harmful behaviors such as alcoholism and addiction. By utilizing psilocybin in psychotherapy, these depressive triggers can be blocked.
In another recent study conducted at Johns Hopkins University (2011), subjects who were given doses of psilocybin had persistent and positive changes in, behavior, mood, and attitudes (Griffiths, Johnson, Richards, McCann, & Jesse, 2011). The study was double-blind, consisted of 18 adults and it tested the effects of psilocybin under supportive and positive conditions. The dosage was given in ranges of 5-30 mg of psilocybin by mouth. Assessments were made immediately after the study, at 1 month post study, and finally at 14 months post study. The end results showed that 60% of volunteers reported having a “full mystical experience” and 94% of volunteers showed and overall increase in wellbeing and mood after 1 month time. After 14 months 89% of volunteers reported a continued improvement in overall mood and wellbeing as well as reported better relationships and spiritual practices. Some volunteers stated that it was one of the top 5, most personally significant experiences of their lives next to marriage and the birth of a child (Griffiths et al., 2011). In another study by Griffiths et al., subjects who were given psilocybin showed that an overall openness to new ideas and feelings were achieved and confirmed after a year. This is something not often seen in adults over 30 years of age, so this is extremely fascinating (2011).
It seems clear that psychedelic therapy, using LSD and psilocybin, has a positive impact on mood and behaviors. One of the other reasons why this seems to be because these drugs target and modulate neuro circuits in the brain that play a role in mood and affective disorders (X.,Vollenweider, Kometer 2010, pg. 642). Recent studies with behavioral and neuroimaging has shed light on this and given these answers. Evidence, also, shows that the pathophysiology of mood disorders is contributed to abnormalities in neuroplasticity. Since psychedelic drugs target neuronal plasticity and modulate 5-HT2A receptors, they are a great tool to improve the subtypes of anxiety and stress- related disorders and thus have a positive impact on addiction and alcoholism treatment (X.,Vollenweider, Kometer 2010, pg. 648).
The future of psychedelic therapy
Much more research still needs to be done, but there is certainly substantial evidence, past and present, that shows psychedelics as a promising way to battle and treat addiction and alcoholism problem and their triggers, depression, mood disorders, stress, and anxiety. Quite possibly one of the most fascinating points to be made is that this means of treatment offers no negative long-term side effects and is a safe and harmless treatment option compared to anti-depressant medications.
The problem that future research will run into seems to be the lack of funding and the ‘still’ strict laws. It is hard to receive funding for a drug(s) that no longer has or can be patent as well as the fact that treatment and positive result from the treatment can be achieve in as little as a few doses. Dr. John Halpern, MD, who is the Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School stated, “Psychedelics work so well, you take fewer doses. That’s a problem; they work too well to attract the research” (2014).
It’s sad, but psychedelics just aren’t attracting the attention that they deserve yet. Hopefully, with such positive result from current research, psychedelic therapy can become widely available to the people who could so greatly benefit from its usage. Only the future can tell what place psychedelics will hold in the area of medicine and psychology, but hopefully these answers will come sooner than later so people can end their addictions and get their lives back. Too many people are suffering and desperately seeking beneficial treatment options that make them feel better not worse. Even if 25-50% of those who are suffering can improve their lives through psychedelic therapy, it would be well worth it. It is time for positive change and new options to battle these epidemics. The time is overdue; the time is now.
The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is currently raising money to help fund psychedelic research. If you would like to make a donation or to learn more, please visit:
If you can’t make a donation, that’s okay, simply share, share, and share some more to help spread the word! No ice bucket required!
You can also visit the sites below for the latest news on psychedelics:
Sources & References:
- Carhart-Harris, R. L., Wise, R. G., Leech, R., Nutt, D. J., Feilding, A., Evans, J., et al. (2012). Implications for psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy: functional magnetic resonance imaging study with psilocybin. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 200(3), 238-244.
- Griffiths, R. R., Johnson, M. W., Richards, W. A., Richards, B. D., McCann, U., & Jesse, R. (2011). Psilocybin Occasioned Mystical-type Experiences: Immediate And Persisting Dose-related Effects. Psychopharmacology, 218(4), 649-665.
- Luscher, C., & Ungless, M. A. (2006). The Mechanistic Classification Of Addictive Drugs. PLoS Medicine, 3(11), e437.
- MacLean, J. R. (1961). The use of LSD-25 in the treatment of alcoholism and other psychiatric problems. New Haven, CT: Laboratory of applied Biodynamics, Yale University.
- Maclean, K. A., Johnson, M. W., & Griffiths, R. R. (2011). Mystical experiences occasioned by the hallucinogen psilocybin lead to increases in the personality domain of openness. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 25(11), 1453-1461.
- New Data Show Millions of Americans with Alcohol and Drug Addiction Could Benefit from Health Care R – Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. (n.d.). Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. Retrieved July 3, 2014, from http://www.drugfree.org/new-data-show-millions-of-americans-with-alcohol-and-drug-addiction-could-benefit-from-health-care-r/
- Panne, V. (n.d.). The Dailybeast. The Daily Beast. Retrieved July 3, 2014, from http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/02/05/longtime-sufferers-of-cluster-headaches-find-relief-in-psychedelics.html
- Psilocybin-Facilitated Treatment of Addiction – A Beckley Foundation/Johns Hopkins Collaboration – The Beckley Foundation. (n.d.). The Beckley Foundation RSS.
- Vollenweider, F. X., & Kometer, M. (2010). The Neurobiology Of Psychedelic Drugs: Implications For The Treatment Of Mood Disorders. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 11(9), 642-651.