The Promises and Perils of Psychedelic Health Care
Many recreational drugs known for mind-altering trips are being studied to treat depression, substance use, and other disorders. Here’s what you need to know.
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. After last year’s legalization in Oregon, entrepreneurs began investing tens of millions in psilocybin research.
Potential mental health uses: Research conducted in the last decade suggests that psilocybin, typically taken in pill form, has the potential to treat substance use disorders, including alcoholism and nicotine addiction, as well as depression.
What it does: According to users who have participated in trials, a mushroom trip may induce euphoria and increased awareness of parts of their environment. For instance, solid objects might seem to breathe in and out. A trip can last more than six hours, and some people describe a positive “afterglow” lasting for months.
Risks: Psilocybin can cause distressing hallucinations or feelings of panic and anxiety in some patients, especially at high doses. You can’t be guaranteed safety standards — having a trained professional who can reassure you, protect you and even administer drugs during a bad trip — in therapy outside of a research trial, Dr. Harris said.
One use of psilocybin, which should not be confused with standard treatment described above, is microdosing. By taking small doses — perhaps 10 percent of a standard dose — every few days, some people might experience mental health benefits without the high. But microdosing psilocybin can be harmful, and there is some evidence that it can damage the heart over time. Recent research also suggests that the positive impacts of microdosing in humans may be largely caused by the placebo effect.
First synthesized in 1956, ketamine, sometimes called Special K, is used today as an anesthetic by veterinarians and in emergency or combat medicine. Because it is the one psychedelic that’s never been illegal, researchers have been able to explore ketamine’s potential as mental health treatment — and build a case for its use in humans.
Potential mental health uses: Many brain disorders — like schizophrenia, depression and anxiety — are characterized by atrophy in the prefrontal cortex. The evidence is strong, though not yet conclusive, that ketamine helps people with psychiatric disorders by promoting regrowth over time in neurons in this area. That could help explain the near-immediate feelings of relief that users report, which is one of the reasons it has been used in the treatment of suicidal patients.
Esketamine, a form of ketamine, showed such promise for treating major depression, often faster than other drugs, that the F.D.A. approved its limited use in early 2019.
What it does: Ketamine can create euphoria and provide a sense of detachment from reality. Users taking a low dose might feel as though they’re floating or that their body is numb. Higher doses can temporarily make people clumsy and forget where they are or even who they are. Blurred vision or hallucinations are common.
Ketamine works differently from other psychedelics. Most psychedelics — like LSD, MDMA and those derived from plants — operate by affecting serotonin receptors, which alter mood and happiness. Ketamine affects a different class of brain receptors that are important for learning and memory. Both kinds of receptors are found in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which might explain why ketamine and the other psychedelics seem to have similar impacts on mental health.
“Turn on, tune in, drop out.” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Silicon Valley microdosing. Suffice it to say, LSD, also known as acid, has a storied place in American popular culture.
Potential mental health uses: It’s shown promise for treating alcohol addiction and has been studied for other conditions like depression. As with psilocybin, some new LSD adherents microdose to achieve mental health benefits without the trip.
What it does: LSD users have reported feelings of bliss during their trip, being able to see sound and having mystical experiences as well as a sense of closeness with others.
Risks: Some people experience lasting psychological trauma caused by a bad trip, especially when they take higher doses or use LSD often.
Microdosing LSD may have physical risks, too. In a study on rats, microdosing LSD had the opposite effect of a trip; it made the rats display signs of psychiatric illness, like aggression and poor grooming. Similar to microdosing psilocybin, it may also strain the heart by overworking the neurons around the organ.
“If you’re constantly stimulating these neurons, even with a small dose of these compounds, the neurons just can’t take it,” Dr. Olson said.
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. While the drug remains illegal, the F.D.A. allows its use in research and treatment for life-threatening illness.
Potential mental health uses: In 2010, results from a study on treatment-resistant PTSD renewed interest in MDMA research. Since then, it has also been explored as a treatment for other conditions like substance use disorder or social anxiety in autistic people, although it has more potential to cause damage than some other psychedelics.
What it does: MDMA is often known by its street name — ecstasy — from the feeling of euphoria and connectedness, it promotes in users.
Risks: MDMA can cause lasting kidney and organ damage as well as heart arrhythmias during a trip, especially in patients with related pre-existing conditions.
Psychedelic drugs aren’t simple substances. More time and research will provide answers about their effects on the brain and whether it’s possible to use them for medical treatments. For now, Dr. Hutson cautioned that evidence supports psychedelic treatments only in cases where other forms of treatment haven’t worked.
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