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Psychedelics Are Back

In the scientific limelight, that is. Sort of. In the 1950s and 60s, there was a great deal of optimism about the potential of psychedelic drugs for therapeutic use. Drugs like LSD and psilocybin, the active substance in magic mushrooms, were touted as the cure for everything from depression and unhappy relationships to serious crime. As the hippie era wound down and these drugs were made illegal, the scientific investigation of these substances ground to a halt. It’s possible to speculate, discuss and editorialize a lot about the hows and whys of this, but since this is not a politics blog, we’ll skip straight to the chase. After decades of little in the way of scientific research on psychedelics, it seems that they’re on their way back.

Psilocybin has seen mainstream coverage recently due to two fresh-off-the-presses new studies. One looked at the brains of people tripping on psilocybin, using fMRI scanning, and found something surprising: the vivid, hallucinatory state of mind isn’t caused by increased activity in the brain, but decreased activity in a few key areas. These included the anterior and posterior cingulate cortex and the medial prefrontal cortex, which are believed to function to coordinate our mental worlds into neat narratives we can understand. Feelings of ego or the sense of self are also related to these areas, and they’re overactive in depressed or anxious people. As others have pointed out, this seems to fit with what Aldous Huxley, author and mescaline enthusiast, theorized all the way back in 1954:

But in so far as we are animals, our business is at all costs to survive. To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this Particular planet. To formulate and express the contents of this reduced awareness, man has invented and endlessly elaborated those symbol-systems and implicit philosophies which we call languages. (…)

That which, in the language of religion, is called “this world” is the universe of reduced awareness, expressed, and, as it were, petrified by language. The various “other worlds,” with which human beings erratically make contact are so many elements in the totality of the awareness belonging to Mind at Large. Most people, most of the time, know only what comes through the reducing valve and is consecrated as genuinely real by the local language. Certain persons, however, seem to be born with a kind of by-pass that circumvents the reducing valve. In others temporary by-passes may be acquired either spontaneously, or as the result of deliberate “spiritual exercises,” or through hypnosis, or by means of drugs. Through these permanent or temporary by-passes there flows, not indeed the perception “of everything that is happening everywhere in the universe” (for the by-pass does not abolish the reducing valve, which still excludes the total content of Mind at Large), but something more than, and above and something different from, the carefully selected utilitarian material which our narrowed, individual minds regard as a complete, or at least sufficient, picture of reality.

That study had some implications for treatment of depression and anxiety, but the other study making the rounds looks at this more directly. It looked at how the increased ability to visualize during a psychedelic trip could be used to reinforce positive autobiographical memories. Healthy volunteers reported more vivid recollections on psilocybin than on placebo, and vividness was positively correlated with subjective well-being on follow-up. Brain imaging also appeared to support the subjects’ reports of vivid activation of memories. While hardly conclusive, these two studies are grounds for optimism, and should lead to further studies on psilocybin’s potential as a therapeutic tool.

The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies is funding a bunch of different studies, especially focusing on psychedelic-assisted therapy for patients with posttraumatic stress disorder in war veterans and for anxiety associated with terminal illness. There was a good story about therapy aided by MDMA (ecstasy) in Oprah Magazine (of all places). In 2002, a paper was published in Science that claimed to show that MDMA was severely neurotoxic. It turned out that the study, which had been done on monkeys, had used methamphetamine, and not MDMA, and thus had to be retracted.

Finally, there is ibogaine, a substance found in the iboga root and traditionally used for its visionary effects by the Bwiti tribe of Gabon. Ibogaine has a great potential as a treatment for substance addiction. Around the world, there exist treatment centers with varying degrees of official sanctioning and legality. In rats, ibogaine inhibits cocaine self-administration. In humans, it has proven effective in treating opiate withdrawal. Ibogaine’s mechanism of action is complex and little understood. It may work by somehow “resetting” cognitive or behavioral patterns associated with bad habits, not limited to substance abuse, but much more research is needed to make this notion precise.

Major pharmaceutical manufacturers remain uninterested in psychedelic research. The substances are, after all, illegal, but perhaps more importantly, the patents are expired, and the suggested treatments recommend administering the drug a limited number of times. In other words, psychedelic treatments are unlikely to be very profitable.