Psychedelic medicine: how LSD, MDMA and psilocybin open the doors to new treatments

If doctors were to examine themselves about the meaning of LSD and MDMA, they would mostly respond that they are the abbreviations of a drug derived from lysergic acid and another one derived from amphetamine, respectively. If the next question were about psilocybin, some, probably less, would point out that it is a compound present in some hallucinogenic mushrooms. Would be answers would be correct, these substances are drugs that act on the central nervous system and modify the states of consciousness, as well as the behavior of those who use them. Professionals, in honor of their profession, are likely to issue serious warnings that they can lead to dangerous episodes of psychosis, seizures, cardiac complications, and even death. But perhaps – and here comes the interesting thing – someone would give a very different answer, and say that these are drugs that are used to treat depression, anorexia nervosa, drug addiction, social anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress. Based on the promising results that some researchers are obtaining, it would also be a valid answer.

For the neophytes in the matter, the first thing that comes to mind after hearing the word psychotropic is that of a Californian festival in the late sixties, full of hippies drunk with lysergic mysticism crying out for free love and homecoming of the soldiers deployed in Vietnam. But long before flower powerLong before these hallucinogenic substances escaped from the laboratory and fell into the hands of all those young countercultures, LSD was exported from Switzerland (where it was discovered in 1938) to American laboratories, without this being the slightest problem. The same was true of psilocybin and other psychedelic drugs, with which it was experimented at Harvard University without the weight of the law falling on the scientists. The United States only began to penalize the use of these substances and to pursue any type of scientific investigation in which they intervened when the abuse spread among the population. Investigations were put on hold, although they never stopped entirely. Now Johns Hopkins University and theImperial College London has just launched two psychotropic research institutes confirming that there is study subject.

A promise against the worst depression

The psychiatrist Eduard Vieta, scientific director of CIBERSAM and head of the Psychiatry service at the Hospital Clínic confirms that research with psychotropics is giving good results. “The biggest barrier that most of the drugs we use against depression have is that they do not cross the blood-brain barrier, the main barrier to the transport of drugs to the brain, but these drugs do. It is true that they are substances that carry risks, but at the same time they have great potential for the treatment of diseases,precisely because of this ability to cross this barrier, “he explains. The best example is esketamine, which is a derivative of ketamine, a sedative that became popular at electronic music parties due to its dissociative effect, which translates into feeling of leaving the body itself “After years of research with this dissociative drug with great hallucinogenic power, it has become the first anti-suicide drug,” adds the researcher.

According to Vieta, “the benefits are promising and, without a doubt, we are in the best moment to continue promoting the investigation; there was a time when the medical community did not know very well to limit the risks, but today we have very good means of control All these tests are currently being done with scrupulous monitoring. ” But the scientist warns: “Even so, in the long run the side effects that this treatment will bring are still unknown. For now, it is given when the person is so bad on the risk-benefit balance that specialists decide that it is worth the trouble. risk”.

Several studies and clinical trials are being carried out in Spain, all financed with private funds. The company MAPS funds research on MDMA, the compound behind ecstasy, to treat post-traumatic stress, and the company Compass financially supports research on psilocybin. This pharmaceutical company is founded by Dr. Ekaterina Malievskaia and her husband, the enterprising millionaire George Goldsmith, both parents of a young man with severe depression. They created it with the goal of finding a drug that will finally cure their child’s illness. “Studies conducted at academic institutions such as Imperial College have shown thatPsilocybin therapy can provide immediate and sustained reductions in depression after a single treatment. So at Compass, we are conducting the large-scale trials that are needed to generate data and bring therapy to market. Our mission is to accelerate patient access to innovation. Treatment-resistant depression (the one that doesn’t respond to any existing medication) is a great unmet need, with 100 million people worldwide suffering from it, and we want to do something about it, “explains Tracy Cheung, Director of Communications for Compass.

What if the mystical experience helped to heal?

José Carlos Bouso, director of scientific projects at the ICEERS Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Barcelona and dedicated to transforming society’s relationship with psychoactive plants, explains that there are different hypotheses to explain how these drugs work in our brain and how they can help us.“Basically they have to do with psychological models and not with biochemical mechanisms. For example, researchers at Johns Hopkins University think it is because of the mystical experience they induce, another explanation is that they reduce the activity of the Default Neural Network (DMN, “Where we create our sense of self, where all incoming information is filtered according to our personal needs and priorities).” It seems that, when being reduced, our ego moves from the foreground to the background, seeing that our self is part of a broader field, which produces a change of consciousness in people: they feel more connected to a much more world bigger than themselves, more altruistic and without fear of death.

One of the scientists who probably knows the most about psilocybin is Roland Griffiths, currently director of the new Center for Psychedelic Research and Consciousness at Johns Hopkins University. The psychopharmacologist, who has been investigating this drug for 20 years, carried out an investigation that became a reference in the new wave of psychedelic investigations that science is experiencing. In it, he and his colleagues concluded that “when this substance is administered in a controlled and supported manner, it causes experiences similar to those that occur spontaneously in mystical experiences”.

Since then, Griffiths and his team have published more than 60 articles and administered psilocybin to more than 350 volunteers, in 700 sessions. As stated, “these drugs seem to offer neuroplasticity to the brain, that is, its ability to change, allowing people to break out of their normal routines as new neurological pathways are formed. It is as if psilocybin allowed you to rewrite the story of your life”. His group is now focused on trials with psilocybin to treat addictions. Their latest work has produced surprising results in the treatment of alcoholism: 83% of the volunteers with an addition problem of at least 7 years who underwent the session did not drink again after the psychedelic experience.

For his part, Rick Doblin, founder of MAPS, recounted in the course of one of his lectures the experience of a patient who had suffered a rape, whose post- traumatic stress had been cured in a session of psychotherapy with MDMA: “People who have This disorder has the amygdala, the area of ​​the brain where we process fear, overactive, and reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex, where we logically think. In addition, they have reduced activity in the hippocampus, where we store memories in long-term memory What MDMA travels is to change the brain in an opposite way, reducing the activity of the amygdala, increasing the activity in the prefrontal cortex and the connectivity between the amygdala and the hippocampus, causing traumatic memories to subside. ”

In laboratories, the journey is to understand why we are the way we are, to be able to understand what is happening to your mind so that you feel or act in a certain way. Coming to understand it, say those who have experienced psychedelic therapy, frees the soul. At what price? That, at the moment, we do not know.

 

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