Move Over, Marijuana — Psychedelics Are The Next Therapeutic Drug

Scientists Are Eyeing ‘Shrooms As A Legitimately Effective Treatment For Depression

Portrait of happy woman
Julia Meslener for Scary Mommy and George Marks/Retrofile/Getty

We’ve legalized pot as a treatment for everything from nausea to anxiety to glaucoma. We’ve even made it recreational (now, as they say in Hamilton, everything is legal in New Jersey). These days, scientists are dragging another drug from your dorm-room days into medical legitimacy: psychedelics. For those of you who spent college drinking light beer after you turned 21, psychedelics like magic mushrooms and LSD are powerful hallucinogens that induce an altered state of consciousness generally called “tripping your face off” but which, it turns out, scientists know very little about.

Until now.

Now we know psychedelics may be a new first-line treatment for depression. They may help people stop smoking. They may become a part of palliative care for cancer patients. And they could help cure addiction. Forget your trippy wall art and your Jefferson Airplane. Psychedelics just stepped from handshake drugs to medical legitimacy.

What We Did Know About Psychedelics

According to the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), most of the early studies on LSD were conducted by the CIA as part of their super-classified, super-shady MK-Ultra Project in hopes of developing a “truth serum.” These didn’t go well. Scientists later discovered psilocin and psilocybin from mushrooms, adding these to their therapeutic arsenal. They thought LSD mostly induced a state of psychosis or schizophrenia. Experiments tended in those directions.

And the therapies, like most attempts to “cure” people with severe mental illness in the 1950s and 1960s, didn’t go well. They were neither particularly gentle, combining psychedelics with electroshock and insulin shock, nor particularly ethical, in some cases dosing people without consent. By then, doctors had begun to believe that psychedelics could “break down” the brain into a primitive state and induce a mystical experience that could allow a person to “see some of their conflicts.” Yeah, that sounds medical-ish and scientific-al.

In the 1960s, says Scientific American, then-Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert were expelled from said university for dosing students in the name of science, partly due to their sloppy methodology (they were also on psychedelics, for example, when they conducted the experiments. How could this seem like a good idea to anyone?!). By then, scientists had found psilocybin to be an effective treatment for substance abuse, including heroin — but funding dried up when the drug became illegal in 1968.

Where Psychedelics Stand Now

We’re a long way from a stoned Timothy Leary shoving tabs of acid under freshmen’s tongues. Now none other than Johns Hopkins, the flagship university for medical studies, has opened an institute dedicated to examining the therapeutic effects of psychedelics. Psychedelics have merited it: promising studies have emerged about their efficacy in treating depression, addiction, and PTSD, says Scientific American.

And they have the potential, many believe, to treat a hell of a lot more. In addition to a smoking cessation study that’s already shown amazing success, Johns Hopkins is conducting, or has plans to conduct, studies on “opioid addiction, PTSD, anorexia, post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome, Alzheimer’s disease and alcoholism in people with depression.”

It’s because of these studies that psilocybin has become legal in Oregon — not so you and your roommate can watch the wallpaper melt. It’s tightly controlled; only licensed therapists can grow the shrooms, extract the drug, dose people, or set up a center for treatment. There aren’t, like, magic mushroom dispensaries on the streets of Portland. Psilocybin was legalized so therapists can use it to treat patients for conditions like depression, for which it’s shown a lot of promise.

So What’s It Do And How’s It Work?

Here’s the deal.

We’ve come a long way, through neural imaging and an expanded understanding of how the brain works, from the scientificalish jibber-jabber of Timothy Leary and his dosed-up pals. When dosed with psilocybin, according to Inverse, “the brain creates a feedback loop of neuron activity and neurotransmitter release (the chemical messengers that neurons use to communicate).” This leads, they think, to a “destabilization” of individual brain networks and a whole reorganization of the way the neurons communicate in the brain. This, in turn, creates new neural pathways.

Basically, you’re tearing up your crumbly old road system and building a shiny new one — one without the same depressing potholes and thought traps.

This could explain why, “people feel ‘reorganized’ in a way they don’t with other drugs,” Johns Hopkins neuropharmacologist Roland Griffiths tells Scientific American. He recently delivered synthetic psilocybin to a group of people with major depressive disorder. 71% had a “clinically significant response” (an improvement that lasted at least four weeks after treatment). 54% reported a complete remission.

In 2016, Griffiths, along with others, found that psilocybin, when used with psychotherapy, caused a  “significant decrease in depressed mood and anxiety” in terminal cancer patients. And doctors at Imperial College London reported “marked and sustained improvements” in 12 patients with treatment-resistant depression after psilocybin therapy; there was, however, no control group.

Where are We Going with Psychedelics?

First of all, Scientific American says that, “In 2019 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted “breakthrough” status to a company called Compass Pathways to study the use of psilocybin—in conjunction with psychotherapy—for treatment-resistant depression.” This means they expedited the process. So it looks like soon, people with treatment-resistant depression may be the first to have access to psilocybin treatment, at least as a general guideline.

Obviously, those in Oregon will have access first, and probably for several indications, much like medical marijuana. “I welcome the broadening of the indications, because I think psilocybin is likely to be effective in a range of disorders,” David Nutt, author of the initial 2016 study on psilocybin and depression, and director of the neuropsychopharmacology unit in the division of brain sciences at Imperial College London, tells Scientific American. But both he and another scientist urged caution: psilocybin can’t cure everyone, and it’s crucial that people be screened for “psychotic predispositions.”

“The reality is that they are NOT for everyone,” Rachel Aiden, a professional therapist and CEO of Synthesis Group, a Netherlands psilocybin retreat center, told Scientific American.

I hear you,  Rachel. But as someone with depression, I’m willing to find out if they’re for me.