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New research restores psychedelics’ medical respectability

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Tuesday, September 7, 2010 15:18 EDT
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Recently published studies suggest that ‘magic mushrooms’ and ‘ecstasy’ may have medical value.

Before the enactment of the Controlled Substances Act in the late 60′s, psychiatrists had been eagerly investigating the use of psychedelic drugs as an aid to psychological therapy.

Unfortunately, as the government sought to eliminate the recreational use of these drugs, it consequentially eliminated nearly all research into their effects.

Although there was almost no research on psychedelic drugs from the early 70′s to late 90′s, within the last decade studies have reaffirmed that ‘magic mushrooms’ and ecstasy (MDMA) can be valuable tools for mental health professionals.

A study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry found psilocybin, the active substance in ‘magic mushrooms,’ can safely improve the moods of patients with advanced-stage cancer and anxiety.

The study was headed by Dr. Charles S. Grob, a professor of psychiatry at the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.

In Dr. Grob’s study, twelve volunteers, ages 36 to 58, with advanced-stage cancer and anxiety were given a moderate dose of psilocybin and, on a separate occasion, a placebo. The study employed a double-blind procedure, meaning neither the volunteers nor the researchers monitoring them knew whether they’d been given a placebo or psilocybin.

After receiving a dose of psilocybin or a placebo, volunteers were monitored for six hours. They were encouraged to lie in bed, wear eye shades and listen to soft music during the first few hours after ingesting the medication or the placebo. The volunteers were then interviewed after the six-hour session and over the next six months to assess the consequences of the treatment.

The study found a significant improvement of mood and a reduction in symptoms of anxiety up to six months after receiving psilocybin-assisted therapy.

“We are working with a patient population that often does not respond well to conventional treatments,” said Dr. Grob. “Following their treatments with psilocybin, the patients and their families reported benefit from the use of this hallucinogen in reducing their anxiety. This study shows psilocybin can be administered safely, and that further investigation of hallucinogens should be pursued to determine their potential benefits.”

Although some may be concerned that a relatively unstudied and illegal substance such as psilocybin may pose health risks, a study published in the peer-reviewed journal Psychopharmacology in 2004 found there is “no cause for concern that [psilocybin] is hazardous with respect to somatic health” in healthy adults.

The only physiological side-effects the study found was a brief increase in blood pressure and a small increase in levels of thyroid-stimulating-hormone (TSH), prolactin, cortisol, and adrenocorticotropic hormone. None of these side-effects were considered dangerous to healthy adults.

“Typically, the experiences after [medium and high doses of psilocybin] were rated positive, with retrospective statements ranging from ‘pleasurable’ to ‘ineffably beautiful,’ ” according to the study. One volunteer had a fearful experience after being given a high dose of psilocybin, but his anxiety was resolved without the need for pharmacological intervention.

Recently published research has also found Methylene-dioxy-methamphetamine (MDMA), better known as the club drug esctasy, to be a viable treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The study was headed by Michael C. Mithoefer and published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Psychopharmacology.

For their study, Mithoefer and his colleagues recruited twenty people who suffered from chronic PTSD. The majority of the participants in this study were women and had been diagnosed with PTSD for an average of 19 years.

Of these twenty participants, twelve were randomly assigned to receive MDMA-assisted therapy while the remaining eight were assigned to receive the same psychotherapy, but with a placebo pill instead of ecstasy.

The psychotherapy consisted of two, eight hour sessions at an outpatient office.

The method of psychotherapy used followed principles similar to those developed by Dr. Humphry Osmond, Dr. Stansilav Grof, and others in the 50′s and 60′s for LSD psychotherapy.

There was a significant difference between the group of participants who received ecstasy-assisted therapy and those who received psychotherapy without ecstasy.
Volunteers treated with a combination of MDMA and psychotherapy saw clinically and statistically significant improvements in their PTSD – over 80% of the trial group no longer met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, stipulated in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (DSM-IV-TR) following the trial, compared to only 25% of the placebo group.

In addition, all three volunteers who reported being unable to work due to PTSD were able to return to work following treatment with MDMA.

Mithoefer and his colleagues believe that the use of ecstasy during psychotherapy may be effective because it allows the patient to emotionally engage traumatic memories without becoming overwhelmed by fear or anxiety.

“The goal of using MDMA is to temporarily reduce fear and increase trust without inhibiting emotions, especially painful emotions, allowing these patients a window where psychotherapy for their PTSD is effective.”

Due to the preliminary nature of the study, these findings are limited, but Mithoefer and his colleagues are enthusiastic that long-term research will show similarly positive results.

 
 
 
 
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