December 1st, 2010

Study examines potential of psychedelic drugs to relieve distress

Psychedelic drugs such as LSD and psilocybin, which largely fell out of favor among researchers in the early 1970s, have re-emerged in studies of severe depression and anxiety.

Scientists at UCLA, New York University, Johns Hopkins and other institutions have been quietly studying the drugs’ potential to help relieve mental distress in terminally ill patients, with so far promising results. The research has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, though funding has come from private entities.

In a current double-blind study, Stephen Ross, M.D., an addiction expert at New York University, is testing psilocybin (the active ingredient in so-called “magic mushrooms”) as a way to reduce anxiety and depression in terminal cancer patients. For the six patients he has worked with to date (he plans to work with 32 total), all have reported almost immediate improvement including reduced death anxiety, with the effects often lasting for months after.

“All patients had decreased anxiety and depression, and greater integration in their lives,” Ross says. “Patients are asking for a second dose. It’s been a learning experience for all of us.”

Researchers at UCLA and Johns Hopkins have seen similar results, Ross adds.

Psilocybin and LSD appear to work by opening up spiritual pathways in the brain. Interaction with serotonin sub-receptors leads to the drugs’ powerful, mind-altering effects, Ross says. For patients, the drugs seem to help alleviate the crisis of meaning that often accompanies terminal illness.

A far cry from the noisy dorms that are often the setting for experiments with psychedelic drugs, the current scientific studies are carried out in controlled, peaceful environments. In Ross’s study, patients lie down, with eyes shaded, on a sofa while listening to a combination of Eastern, classical and tribal music. Two therapists – who don’t know whether the patient has taken psilocybin or a placebo – stay with the patient for support.

Although it’s hard to predict now whether these drugs will someday be prescribed for severe depression, other studies are also sparking interest. Research on a small sample of patients with severe bipolar disorder, published in August, found the drug to quickly relieve their symptoms, with the effects lasting at least three days.

Some psychologists find such research to be hopeful.

“I was delighted to hear [about the studies],” says a Portland, Maine psychologist who had used psychedelic drugs in the 1960s and ’70s and preferred to remain anonymous. “When the hammer fell on psychedelic research in the ’60s, it threw out a very special baby with the bath water.”

The psychologist says he had a number of supervised experiences with drugs such as LSD and psilocybin, a few under the guidance of Stanislav Grof, M.D., a founder of transpersonal psychology and a pioneer in research on the psychological effects of LSD.

“I found them to be profoundly spiritual experiences,” he says, recalling one occasion in which he watched a sunrise and experienced “ineffable joy, ineffable fulfillment … it was like looking in the face of God. LSD was able to turn on certain circuits not normally available to us.”

For terminally ill patients, he says he hopes the research will lead to “spiritual breakthroughs that can be processed with the help of a therapist.” Careful patient selection, supervision and guidance seem to be keys to the studies’ success, he adds.

“I think there’s a world of difference between [taking psychedelic drugs] in a supervised setting once or twice a year versus unsupervised experiences once or twice a week,” he says.


By Ami Albernaz

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