New findings add to the growing body of evidence suggesting that psychedelic drugs may be effective at treating a variety of psychological disorders, including depression, social anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and could one day be prescribed to patients.
The research was presented recently at the American Psychological Association’s annual meeting and included studies on the use of LSD, psilocybin (magic mushrooms), MDMA (ecstacy) and ayahuasca (used by indigenous Amazonian people for spiritual ceremonies).
After the discovery of LSD in the 1940s, American researchers began studying hallucinogens for their potential healing benefits, but this research mostly came to a halt after psychedelics were outlawed in the late 1960s.
A shift may be coming soon, however, as MDMA is beginning its third and final phase of clinical trials in an effort to win Food and Drug Administration approval for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, said Adam Snider, MA, of Alliant International University Los Angeles, and co-chair of the symposium.
“Combined with psychotherapy, some psychedelic drugs like MDMA, psilocybin and ayahuasca may improve symptoms of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder,” said Cristina L. Magalhaes, PhD, of Alliant International University Los Angeles, and co-chair of a symposium on psychedelics and psychotherapy.
“More research and discussion are needed to understand the possible benefits of these drugs, and psychologists can help navigate the clinical, ethical and cultural issues related to their use.”
Findings from another study suggest that symptoms of social anxiety in adults with autism may be treatable with a combination of psychotherapy and MDMA. Twelve autistic adults with moderate to severe social anxiety who were given two treatments of pure MDMA, plus ongoing therapy, showed significant and long-lasting reductions in their symptoms.
“Social anxiety is prevalent in autistic adults and few treatment options have been shown to be effective,” said Alicia Danforth, PhD, of the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute at the HarborUCLA Medical Center, who conducted the study. “The positive effects of using MDMA and therapy lasted months, or even years, for most of the research volunteers.”
Other research presented at the meeting shows how LSD, psilocybin and ayahuasca may benefit people with anxiety, depression and eating disorders.
Adele Lafrance, PhD, of Laurentian University, discussed a study of 159 participants who reported on their past use of hallucinogens, level of spirituality and relationship with their emotions. Hallucinogen use was associated with greater levels of spirituality, which led to improved emotional stability and fewer symptoms of anxiety, depression and disordered eating.
“This study reinforces the need for the psychological field to consider a larger role for spirituality in the context of mainstream treatment because spiritual growth and a connection to something greater than the self can be fostered,” said Lafrance.
One study suggests that ayahuasca may help relieve depression and addiction, as well as assist people in coping with trauma. “We found that ayahuasca also fostered an increase in generosity, spiritual connection and altruism,” said Clancy Cavnar, PhD, with Núcleo de Estudos Interdisciplinares sobre Psicoativos.
In addition, for people suffering from life-threatening cancer, psilocybin may offer significant and long-lasting reductions in anxiety and distress.
When combined with psychotherapy, psilocybin helped 13 study participants grapple with loss and existential distress. It also helped the participants reconcile their feelings about death as nearly all participants reported that they developed a new understanding of dying, according to Gabby Agin-Liebes, BA, of Palo Alto University, who conducted the research.
“Participants made spiritual or religious interpretations of their experience and the psilocybin treatment helped facilitate a reconnection to life, greater mindfulness and presence, and gave them more confidence when faced with cancer recurrence,” said Agin-Liebes.