Before psychedelic drugs were banned in the 1970’s, psilocybin (the active compound in “magic mushrooms”) and LSD (acid) had shown promise for treating conditions such as alcoholism and some psychiatric disorders.
In a new commentary published in the journal Cell, part of a special issue on medicine, researchers say it’s time for regulators, scientists, and the public to “revisit drugs that were once used but fell out of use because of political machinations, especially the war on drugs.”
“If we changed the regulations, we would have an explosion in this kind of research,” said first author Dr. David Nutt, a professor and neuropharmacologist at Imperial College London.
“An enormous opportunity has been lost, and we want to resurrect it. It’s an outrageous insult to humanity that these drugs were abandoned for research just to stop people from having fun with them. The sooner we get these drugs into proper clinical evaluation, the sooner we will know how best to use them and be able to save lives.”
Brain imaging over the past 20 years has taught scientists a lot about how these drugs act on different areas of the brain.
In general, psychedelics appear to disrupt the default mode network, a region that is active during thought processes like daydreaming, recalling memories, and thinking about the future — when the mind is wandering, essentially. It’s also an area that is overactive in people with disorders like depression and anxiety.
Psychedelics appear to have long-term effects on the brain by activating 5-HT2A receptors in the default mode network. More studies are needed to determine why these effects last so long, both from a psychological perspective and in terms of altered brain functioning and anatomy.
“There’s mechanistic evidence in humans of how these drugs affect the brain,” Nutt says. “By back-translating from humans to rodent models, we can see how these drugs produce the powerful neuroplastic changes that explain the long-term alterations we see in humans.”
In the commentary, the researchers write about the “psychedelic revolution in psychiatry.” They look at specific questions in research, including what is known about the receptors in the brain affected by these drugs and how stimulating them might impact mental health.
The authors also address what’s been learned so far about microdosing, the value of the psychedelic “trip,” and what researchers know about why the effects of these trips are so long-lasting.
The authors note the challenges in obtaining materials and funding for this type of research. “Before LSD was banned, the US NIH funded over 130 studies exploring its clinical utility,” they write. “Since the ban, it has funded none.”
Nutt highlights the early potential of psychedelic drugs for treating alcoholism, which the World Health Organization estimates to be the cause of about one in 20 deaths worldwide every year.
Nutt is a prominent proponent of conducting controlled trials to examine the potential benefits of psychedelics. He is also chair of the scientific advisory board for COMPASS Pathways, a for-profit company that is leading clinical research to test the safety and efficacy of psilocybin-assisted therapy for treatment-resistant depression.
The treatment has been granted breakthrough therapy designation from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The group also plans to launch a similar study for obsessive-compulsive disorder.