You've probably been confronted lately with several sets of news on the promising effects of psychedelics in dealing with mental health issues.
After early psychiatric experimentation in the 1950s and 60s, followed by decades of prohibition – sparked in part by the backlash against the hippy counterculture – psychedelics are experiencing a renaissance. A new wave of research has returned to the hallucinogenic drugs as potential candidates to treat psychiatric conditions (Guardian, 2022), such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, addiction, etc.
What are they?
All psychedelics produce a temporary altered state of consciousness, but researchers believe these experiences may generate lasting effects when it comes to treating mental health.
There is evidence that the brain becomes more flexible after a psychedelic, as if new pathways of thinking are formed in the brain.
These drugs are not all the same and do come with risks. One quality they share is the ability to create an altered state of consciousness, commonly referred to as a trip. But, their effect can indeed provide a sense of perspective, but on the other hand, also create terrifying experiences to last a lifetime. And that's why researchers alert to the settings that need to be in place to make these positive transforming experiences
Most research around the world is focussing in four substances in particular: psilocybin, ketamine, MDMA and LSD.
As the active chemical in magic mushrooms, or ’shrooms, psilocybin is the most studied of the psychedelic chemicals found in plants and fungi, and it’s the most likely to become an accepted mental health therapy soon.
First synthesized in 1956, ketamine, sometimes called Special K, is used today as an anesthetic by veterinarians and in emergency or combat medicine.
A well-known club drug, also known as ecstasy or molly, MDMA has been researched on and off for decades for potential mental health benefits. It often creates a feeling of euphoria and connectedness.
LSD, also known as acid, is a synthetic chemical, made from a substance found in ergot, which is a fungus that infects rye (grain). When small doses are taken, it can produce mild changes in perception, mood and thought. Larger doses may produce visual hallucinations and distortions of space and time.
How do they act on the brain chemistry?
Classical psychedelic drugs work on the brain by binding strongly to specific serotonin receptors. Their action on these receptors is thought to result in the drugs’ hallucinogenic effects, as well as changes in perception and a sense of ego dissolution.
Psychedelics are also thought to dampen the “default mode network”, a system of interconnected brain regions that is active at unfocused, wakeful rest – such as daydreaming. The region is believed to be important in formulating our sense of self, and can become too rigid when people experience anxiety and depression (Guardian, 2022).
Impact on mental health
By apparently working by encouraging the growth of new connections between neurons in the brain, especially psilocybin and MDMA have shown promise as therapies for treatment-resistant depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Psychedelic intervention should be combined with Psychotherapy and those are the guidelines that are being followed in most research projects, as well as health institutions that already offer this service.
Here, in the Netherlands, there are many places that have psychedelic interventions certified, take a look:
It is important to notice that, just as any other susbtance (much like what happens with antidepressants, for example), these drugs won't be a miraculous solution that will work for everyone.
But they do show potential of improving lives and that's always a positive outlook on science and new knowledge - something to be positive and hopeful about!
If you're curious for more, check out John Hopkins Center website: