It was the most peaceful, joyous, incredible,
life changing experience I’ve ever had in my life. There were scary parts, foreboding
parts … I always knew there was beautiful and joy and peace on the other side of it.
It was freeing, it was really freeing. This is Alana. She’s describing what she
felt after she took a dose of this stuff — psilocybin. It’s a naturally occurring psychedelic compound,
the kind you find in magic mushrooms. But she wasn’t tripping in a dorm room or
at Woodstock — it actually wasn’t recreational at all.
If anything became unreal or I was feeling nervous or not in touch with reality, I would
squeeze his hand and he would squeeze mine back just to reassure me that I was okay and
everything was alright. It was part of a controlled medical test to
see if psychedelics could be useful in helping people quit cigarettes. Alana had been smoking
for 37 years before her session with psilocybin, and she hasn’t had a cigarette since. Research on psychedelics for medical use is
preliminary. Most studies suffer from really small sample sizes. That’s partly because the
federal government lists LSD and psilocybin as Schedule 1 drugs. So researchers face extra
red tape, and funding is really hard to come by. Vox writer German Lopez reviewed dozens of
studies that have been done. He found that psychedelics show promise for treating addiction,
OCD, anxiety, and in some cases, depression. One small study of 15 smokers found that 80
percent were able to abstain from smoking for six months after a psilocybin treatment.
In a pilot study of 12 advanced cancer patients suffering from end-of-life anxiety, participants
who took psilocybin generally showed lower scores on a test of depression.
And smaller study suggested psilocybin treatment could also help people with alcohol dependence
cut back on their drinking days. We don’t have all the answers as to what
exactly these treatments are doing in the brain. But they seem to work by providing
a meaningful, even mystical experience that leads to lasting changes in a patient’s life. The issues that I talked about, or thought about, or went into during my experience were transformative in the sense that I got to look at them through a different lens. I know this sounds weird, I feel like I have more connections in my brain that I couldn’t
access before That feeling that Alana is describing is actually
pretty spot-on. When you take LSD your brain looks something
like this. You can actually see a higher degree of connectivity
between various parts of the brain, it’s not limited to the visual cortex. This communication inside the brain helps explain visual hallucinations — and the researchers argue that it could
also explain why psychedelics can help people overcome serious mental issues.
They wrote that you can think of psychiatric disorders as the brain being “entrenched
in pathology.” Harmful patterns become automated and hard to change, and that’s what can make
things like anxiety, addiction and depression very hard to treat. That’s Albert Garcia-Romeu, he’s a Johns Hopkins researcher who worked on studies of
of psilocybin and smoking addiction, like the one that Alana’s involved with. He says that when participants take psychedelics, One of the big remaining questions here is
how long these benefits actually last after just the one-time treatment.
A review of research on LSD-assisted psychotherapy and alcoholism found no statistically significant
benefits after 12 months. And a recent study on psilocybin and depression
found that benefits significantly dropped off after three months. And of course are some big risks to using
psychedelic drugs. It’s hard to predict a patient’s reaction
and some might actually endanger themselves. Those predisposed to psychotic conditions
are especially at risk for having a traumatic experience while on the drug.
It’s difficult to draw solid conclusions from the existing studies.
But there’s more than enough promise here to merit further research and further funding
for that research. As Matthew Johnson of Johns Hopkins said,
“These are among the most debilitating and costly disorders known to humankind.” For
some people, no existing treatments help. But psychedelics might. One thing you might still be wondering is why so much of this research is so new, when we’ve known when we’ve known about psychedelics for thousands of years. Well since these drugs are so old, they can’t be patented, which means that pharmaceutical companies don’t really have any incentive to fund any research into them. So that really leaves it up to governments and private contributors to fund all these studies. And there actually was a lot of research done into these drugs in the 50s and 60s, but there was a big enough backlash to the abuse of psychedelics in that period, especially around events like Woodstock, that funding really dried up, and research stopped. And that’s why it’s only now that we see this research happening, with private, not government contributions.