In the 1950s, research into mind and perception altering drugs had flourished, then floundered in the middle of an atmosphere of illegalization and demonization in the following decades, under Nixon’s and Reagan’s administrations.
However, researchers are taking up the cause again, exploring the possibilities that psychedlics might effectively treat depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and addiction.
There are murmurs of a renaissance in psychedelic research and thought in Imperial College London, John Hopkins University in Baltimore, and in New York University.
Roland Griffiths, a psychopharmacologist at John Hopkins University School of Medicine, and a team of researchers published a groundbreaking article in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance, in 2006.
This article concludes that when psilocybin is administered under supportive conditions, psilocybin caused experiences similar to mystical experiences. Two-thirds of those participants involved in the sessions described the experiences as being among the most meaningful experiences in their lives.
Griffiths described the mystical experience as a sense of the interconnectedness of all things in an interview with the multidisciplinary association for psychedelic studies (MAPS).
That sense of unity is often accompanied by a sense of sacredness, a sense of openheartedness or love, and a noetic quality suggesting that this experience is more real than everyday waking consciousness.
Psilocybin in The Treatment of Nicotine Addiction
Griffith’s lab pushed forward with their work in a 2014 study on the possibility that psilocybin, the psychedelic component of magic mushrooms could treat nicotine addiction.
Participants in this study had three psilocybin sessions and three cognitive-behavioral therapy sessions to diminish the cravings of nicotine. Eighty percent of those participants who received the psilocybin treatments abstained from nicotine use for over six months while less than 7% of those participants who received traditional nicotine-replacement therapy were successful for more than six months.
The Effects of Psilocybin in Treating PTSD, Depression, and Anxiety
A 2010 study across the Atlantic conducted at Imperial College London also investigated the effects of psilocybin in treating PTSD, depression, and anxiety. One participant in the study described his experience following a session,
…Although it’s only days yet, the results are amazing. I feel more confident and calm than I have in such a long time. My outlook has changed significantly too. I am more aware now that it is pointless to get wrapped up in endless negativity. I feel as if I have seen a much clearer picture of which this life is just a tiny part…Another side of this, is I feel like I’ve had a second chance, like a survivor, someone who wants to live for the day, for the experience. I feel like I can enjoy things the way I used to, without the cynicism, without the aggression. At its most basic, I feel like I used to before depression.
The Demonization of The Mystical Experience
Considering the nature of positive mystical experiences these participants had and Griffith’s own definition of a mystical experience, it is hard to believe why the research was put to an end.
Griffiths told The New Yorker earlier this year that the demonization of psychedelics ended because of a sense of clarity and understanding.
There is such a sense of authority that comes out of the primary mystical experience that it can be threatening to existing hierarchical structures. We ended up demonizing these compounds. Can you think of another area of science regarded as dangerous and taboo that all research gets shut down for decades? It’s unprecedented in modern science.
Modern studies on psychedlics emerged in the early 1950s, researchers studied the effects of LSD, MDMA, and psilocybin to treat alcoholics with LSD, hoping the experience would allow a change in behavior and self-analysis.
However, scientific research in this field was halted through the 1960s and 1970s because of a hostile political climate toward the use of psychedlics.
Psychedelic use skyrocketed from the 1950s and people began to experience bad trips. Experts agree that psychedlics carry a low or nonexistent risk for addiction but can give rise to erratic behavior that may lead to injury or death.
President Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act in 1970, placing the majority of psychedlics under the U.S. government’s restrictive Schedule I category, meaning that these drugs have a significant potential for dependence and abuse, and bear no recognized medicinal value.
Recreational and medicinal use of psychedlics was banned all around the globe. Today, psychedlics and cannabis remain classed under a more restrictive category than cocaine and methamphetamine.
However, psychedelic research continued through the 1990s in small settings. Despite the restrictive laws and past propaganda, psychedelics are growing at a rate not seen since the 1950s. Users and researchers are reemerging from the shadows to proudly advertise their support of psychedelic research and therapy.
A Renaissance on The Horizon
One of the top events for psychedelic researchers, advocates, scientists, and users is the annual Horizons Pychedlic Conference in New York City. Now in its ninth year, the festival has grown to a two-day event hosting researchers from universities in the U.S. South America, and Europe.
Carhart-Harris managed the Imperial College brain imaging study examining how the brain of depressive patients reacts with psilocybin sessions.
The data convinced Harris and his team that psilocybin might be useful in treating depression. Carhart-Harris said that the participants felt lighter, optimistic, and more positive.
Draulio Barros de Araujo, professor of neuroscience at the Brain Institute in Natal, Brazil, is part of the team researching the use of DMT, the active ingredient in ayahuasca might be helpful in treating individuals with treatment-resistant major depressive disorders.
Another study that has proven to be valuable is in the treatment of cancer-related anxiety. Since 2009, the NYU School of Medicine has studied the effects of combining psilocybin sessions with psychotherapy to treat anxiety in cancer patients.
MAPS released a long-term study in 2012 on the benefits of MDMA in the treatment of PTSD. It has become an influential source of funding for researchers seeking to study psychedelics.
As the number of studies on psychedlics increases the likelihood of psychedlics being used in medicine will be likely. However, we need more studies, more critical investigation, and more comprehensive investigations to move forward.