Medical effects of psychedelics: what do we know?

LSD can cure cluster headaches, DMT helps against addiction and psilocybin alleviates depression and end-of-life anxiety in cancer patients. These are just some results of recent scientific studies into the medical potential of psychedelics.

Psychedelic research that started in the 50s and 60s abruptly ended with the War on Drugs. Only the last couple of years it became object of research again. Media is full of praise and even speaks of a ‘psychedelic renaissance’. But what do we really know, so far? Can we pick up our mushrooms from the pharmacy anywhere in the near future?

Journalist German Lopez studied more than fifty scientific papers on the medical effects of three classic psychedelics: LSD, DMT and psilocybin. These were his conclusions:

1. Results are promising, but preliminary.

Studies are small and often there’s no control group or placebo (the latter being quite complicated to realise in psychedelic research). At this stage it’s not possible yet to draw definitive conclusions or generalise found results to bigger populations.

2. Because it’s still very difficult to conduct research on psychedelics.

Since the substances were declared illegal, governments stopped funding this kind of research. Pharmaceutical companies aren’t interested either: most psychedelics are already known and therefore not patentable. Current research projects are all funded by private donations, collected by non-profit organisations like MAPS, the Beckly Foundation and the Heffter Research Institute. Because drugs are still illegal, these projects have to deal with strict regulations. All regulatory hurdles make the studies time-consuming and therefore costly.

3. Up till now beneficial effects were mainly found for depression, addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder and end-of-life anxiety.

Such problems are difficult to treat with conventional methods: the positive effects of psychedelics – and especially the percentages of patients aided – are therefore extra striking.

It’s even more exceptional that psychedelics already show intense effects after a single dose treatment. Whereas conventional (psychiatric) medications usually require long-term regular intake to sort effect.

How long the effects last is unknown. Often results are still visible in a follow-up after 6 or 9 months (in one study even after 34 years!), but not always. Whether psychedelics cure other ailments as well is not studied yet, but it seems likely. Several studies show that psychedelics have a beneficial effect on ‘healthy’ humans as well. They get a more open personality, are more satisfied with their lives and feel better emotionally.

4. Psychedelics seem to work by evoking a deep mystical experience.

This gives people a new perspective on their lives, which often leads to changes in behaviour. Several researchers stress the correlation between the depth of the experience and the demonstrable effect of the treatment.

5. The underlying (biological) mechanism is still unknown.

Researchers aren’t satisfied with an explanation on the spiritual plane and eagerly search for a biological mechanism that may account for this. A recent study mapped brain activity under influence of LSD: more connectivity between different parts of the brain was observed. It thus might be possible that the psychedelic experience ‘shakes up the brain a bit’ and thereby gives the person new perspectives. Other scientists point at the mediating role of neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine that regulate mood. Lopez stresses the fact that in a short amount of time the psychedelic experience brings about a meaningful change in the person as a whole.

6. Risks seem limited.

Up till now no incidents worth mentioning happened while treating patients with psychedelics. The article mentions two risks: people may do dangerous things (like jumping out of a window) under the influence of psychedelics and people prone to psychoses should not take psychedelics at all. These risks are prevented by a strict screening, safe environment and professional guidance. Most researchers want to limit the use of psychedelics to a strictly regulated clinical setting.

Tripping on medical prescription?

It may take a while before we can get psychedelics on medical prescription, but given the current trends it’s not unthinkable. Whether this is desirable is something else. As commonly known, the psychedelic experience is strongly dependent on the setting in which it takes place. It would be a shame if this would be confined to a doctor’s clinic.

Read the whole article here.
Read more: The Trip Treatment, a long-read from Michael Pollan in The New Yorker. The picture is borrowed from the original article.

Author: Judith