Science

Could psychedelics be the answer to chronic mental health issues?

The room at UW-Madison School of Pharmacy where the safety study for psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, was conducted.

The room at UW-Madison School of Pharmacy where the safety study for psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, was conducted.

Image By: Courtesy of UW School of Pharmacy

Magic mushrooms, most popularly characterized as a drug that causes users to tune out, are being found to have the ability to help people tune in to their own psyches and overcome barriers. 

After years of re-establishing the groundwork in the research of psychedelics, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine opened The Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research to test the effectiveness of magic mushrooms and other psychedelic drugs to treat mental illness and addiction. 

According to the author and journalist, Micheal Pollan psychedelics were made illegal in the 1970s after a frenzy of bad media coverage, tying them to counter-culture and the hippie movement. 

It took more than 30 years before research into their possible medicinal applications caused them to began to emerge again.

Pharmacological research happens in four phases, the first phase being the “safety study,” where the drug is exposed to volunteers and its risks are evaluated. A safety study for psilocybin, the active ingredient in mushrooms, was conducted at UW-Madison, where they determined that psilocybin was safe enough to advance into later phases of research.

Dr. Toby Campbell, an end-of-life cancer doctor at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, works with people who are anxious and depressed about dying, as well as have significant fatal illnesses.. He was one of the doctors who oversaw the more recent psilocybin study. Campbell believes that these drugs could seriously help aide those at the end of their lives remedy their fear of death.

“Its all just a bunch of nerd stuff at this point,” Campbell said. “But [psilocybin] really seems to help people.”

Campbell went on to say that since the drug isn't FDA-approved yet, this research could get shut down in an instant — advising that for numerous reasons, the research needs to be extremely careful and thoughtful.

The room in the UW School of Pharmacy where the psilocybin study was conducted in is modeled after the room where they dose patients at the CPCR at Johns Hopkins University. This speaks to what Campbell described as “coordination with Johns Hopkins.”

Roland Griffiths, director of the CPCR, neuroscientist and professor of behavioral biology has been conducting research on mood-altering drugs for 40 years. 

After serious endeavors in meditating, he became extremely interested in the “nature of spiritualism.” This led him to reacquaint himself with research that had gone on in the 1950s and ‘60s that showed how hallucinogens like psilocybin could give “mystical experiences” much like those reported from intense and methodical meditation sessions.

Before the center opened, Griffiths and some of his colleagues sought and ultimately gained approval to administer psilocybin to people who never experienced the drug. This is what began the Johns Hopkins Psilocybin Research Project involving 245 participants in over 600 sessions. 

The sessions were held in a living room-like environment where participants took a capsule containing psilocybin, laid on a couch, were encouraged to use an eye mask and to “look inward.” If fear or anxiety arrives, trained human monitors were there to direct and provide assurances.

Most volunteers reported experiencing “a feeling of unity, that people and all things are connected, a sense of sacredness, joy, love and a deep sense of encountering an ultimate reality,” Griffiths said in a TED Talk from 2016.

Continued research of the Johns Hopkins Psilocybin Project studied psychologically-distressed cancer patients, who Campbell is the most interested in with regard to administering psilocybin.

The study conducted on cancer patients consisted of administering two groups of patients — one group receiving a low dose, and the other a high dose. 

Results collected five weeks after the “trip” showed that 32 percent of patients who were given the low dose experienced clinically significant improvement from a depressed mood, compared to 92 percent of patients who were given a high dose. The researchers again surveyed the high dose patients six months after their “trip,” finding that 80 percent had sustained their clinically significant improvement in mood.

Griffiths outlined the meaning of this in his TED Talk, saying that not only do high doses of these drugs have implications with improving the mood of patients grappling with the imminent idea of their death, but also that the effects are long-lasting. These results are similar to that of studies on anxiety using the same drugs. 

“I think that the trial was the single most effective thing I’ve done to manage my mental health, and I had tried almost everything,” said Rachel Peterson, a participant in a recent psilocybin trial at Johns Hopkins University.

According to Griffiths, these effects are unprecedented in the field of psychiatry. He went on to mention that psilocybin also has greater efficacy in helping cigarette smokers quit than any available options for those seeking to quit.

“Research is showing that under supported conditions psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences associated with enduring positive changes in attitudes, mood, and behavior,” Griffiths said concluding his presentation at TEDMED, the annual conference focusing on health and medicine.

Now after $17 million dollars in private funding, The Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness research has opened, giving a foothold to this revived science.  

“My initial impression is that these compounds can be helpful, and there is no problem in studying and researching [psilocybin],” Campbell said. “I am extremely supportive...and on-board [with the work going on at Johns Hopkins].”  

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