Is it High Time for Psychedelic Therapies?

After years of mainstream resistance, the world is, in more ways than one, beginning to change its mind on psychedelic drugs.

The therapeutic benefits of magic mushrooms, LSD and other hallucinogens are increasingly supported by hard-to-ignore evidence, as the substances become the subject of a major research focus. In 2021, we may even have reached a tipping point of acceptability, not least because of the stark results from one study at the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London, reports Science Focus.


It found that psilocybin, a substance derived from magic mushrooms, was at least as effective in treating depression as escitalopram. All the patients also received psychological support during the trial. This was a randomised, controlled, double-blind study, and the head-to-head design suggests that psilocybin offers better outcomes for patients than escitalopram, which is one of the most commonly prescribed selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors.


“On almost all measures, psilocybin worked significantly better and faster than escitalopram and was at least as well tolerated,” said Prof David Nutt, one of the study’s authors. The measures include self-reported symptoms, chance of remission and adverse side effects.


Psilocybin remains a class A drug in the UK and possession is punishable by up to seven years in prison. Elsewhere, however, its legal status is being reassessed. “In the US, many places are removing the illegal status of magic mushrooms in part to accelerate research and treatment,” Nutt says. “The UK is lagging behind despite our being leaders in the field.”


Perhaps spurred on by the success of medical cannabis (economic as well as therapeutic), there’s a growing sense of normalisation about the substances and their therapeutic potential. Multiple studies on a wide spectrum of conditions are either planned or underway all over the world.


“We have started our trial of psilocybin in anorexia nervosa and will start one on obsessive compulsive disorder and pain in the new year,” Nutt said.


He and his colleagues are also researching other psychedelics, such as LSD and DMT, while another strand of investigation focuses on the therapeutic practicalities of using these drugs.


Earlier this year, researchers at University of California, Davis, reported work on a psychedelic compound that may not have hallucinogenic side effects. This could be important as those kinds of side effects require that patients receive a lot of hands-on psychological support before and after treatment.


Meanwhile, a team at the University of Copenhagen found that psilocybin enhances our emotional response to music – something they say should be considered if the drug is approved for clinical use.

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