A renewal of clinical research during the past 10 years has brought ‘unconventional’ substances such as psilocybin and MDMA into light. Researchers are now starting to realize the tremendous potential those ‘psychedelic drugs’ have as therapeutic substances.
For example, psilocybin is being tested for alcoholism, smoking cessation, and in patients with advanced cancer with anxiety, while MDMA is showing promising results as a treatment for refractory post-traumatic stress disorder, social anxiety in autistic adults, and anxiety associated with a life-threatening illness.
These are but a few additions to the other benevolent effects these active substances have. Because the public health care in the US alone spends tens of billions of dollars for medication and psychotherapy that’s not effective for most patients suffering from the above mentioned afflictions, researchers are now trying to find novel ways to deal with these problems by integrating these ‘illegal drugs’ into various medical treatments. To this point, the results were mostly positive, with only minor side effects to take care of.
“A promising new model of treatment is under investigation in a resurgence of research into use of psychedelic drugs to augment psychotherapy. In this model, the drug is used on one or a few occasions during psychotherapy sessions to overcome obstacles to successful psychotherapy and to catalyze a therapeutic experience. It is theorized that the experience itself, rather than simply the pharmacological eﬀects of the drug, might lead to cure or sustained remission of severe, treatment-refractory psychiatric disorders.” (source)
In contrast with psychotherapy, psilocybin and MDMA offers the possibility of rapid, exhaustive, and lasting psychological healing, while also raising further questions regarding the mechanism involved and clinical applicability of this kind of treatment. Although the two substances lack sustainability for the moment because not enough studies have been conducted so far, their potential for different indications is being tested as we speak, and so far it remains undeniably real.
Both approaches help therapists interact easier with their patients, as they experience an increased focus regarding their disorders. In MDMA- assisted sessions, periods of talking generally alternate with periods of inner focus. In the case of psilocybin however, most talking happens before and after the effect had faded away.
The ﬁrst study in more than 30 years to investigate the potential of a classic hallucinogen treatment model in patients with advanced cancer and anxiety, partook at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center (Torrance, CA, USA) and the Los Angeles BioMedical Research Institute (Torrance, CA, USA), supported by the Heﬀ ter Research Institute (Santa Fe, NM, USA).
The study involved a double-blind, placebo-controlled model of research. Twelve patients experienced two separate treatment sessions, one month apart from each other, receiving psilocybin and placebo in a random order. All patients were monitored and instructed accordingly regarding the altered states of consciousness they were about to encounter during the treatment session.
Results showed safe psychological and physiological responses during the sessions; meaningful reductions in anxiety at 1 month and 3 months after the treatment were also recorded, and a mood improvement followed after 6 months.
“Results of carefully undertaken studies at Johns Hopkins University showed that screened healthy volunteers treated under optimal conditions with high dose psilocybin reliably experienced profound mystical experiences (deﬁned as encountering a profound sense of unity, transcendence of time and space, deeply felt positive mood, noetic quality, ineﬀability, transiency, and paradoxicality) infused with a renewed sense of purpose and meaning, that even more than a year later retained their personal value.” (source)
Under optimal conditions of administration, psychedelic drugs provide a potentially valuable therapeutic intervention for disorders that are otherwise extremely difficult to deal with. Including end-of-life anxiety and alcoholism (a very addictive disorder with high rates of resistance to existing treatments).
Researchers also revealed that a single dose of psilocybin reduced the drinking behavior and craving in 10 individuals affected by alcohol use disorder. Another study showed a “substantially increase smoking cessation rate and improvement in biomarkers assessing smoking status after psilocybin treatment – 12 (80%) of 15 participants showed 7-day point prevalence abstinence in self-report measures of smoking behavior at 6-month follow-up.”
The paper Novel psychopharmacological therapies for psychiatric disorders: psilocybin and MDMA, was published in Lancet Psychiatry 2016 and can be accessed free of charge.