Sunday, April 21, 2013

Psychedelic Science Conference Explores Medical and Therapeutic Value of LSD, MDMA, and Psilocybin

According to mainstream science, LSD, MDMA, and Psilocybin are not generally considered to have any form of medicinal value. However, last weekend, they were given the spotlight at the "Psychedelic Science 2013" conference in Oakland which brought together over 100 scientists from around the world who  are doing research on using these chemicals to treat things like alcohol and tobacco addiction and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Rick Doblin is the founder of MAPS, a non-profit pharmaceutical company that organized the event. He says the government appears more open now to medical studies involving these chemicals.
"We are enjoying a change of heart at the regulatory agencies both at the FDA and around the world," he says, "and they’re opening the door into both the benefits for therapy and for neuroscience research."
Scientists participating in the conference include doctors from UCLA, NYU and Johns Hopkins. Their work includes studies on LSD to treat alcoholism; psilocybin to ease end of life anxiety and fight tobacco addiction; MDMA to treat Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome; and Ayahuasca for drug addiction.
"These drugs have incredible scientific potential and incredible healing potential," says Doblin.

The Psychedelic Science conference lasts through Tuesday.
Benefits of Magic Mushrooms

Just one strong dose of hallucinogenic mushrooms can alter a person's personality for more than a year and perhaps permanently, a new study finds.

People given psilocybin, the compound in "magic mushrooms" that causes hallucinations and feelings of transcendence, demonstrated a more "open" personality after their experience, an effect that persisted for at least 14 months. Openness is a psychological term referring to an appreciation for new experiences. People who are more open tend to have broad imaginations and value emotion, art and curiosity.

This personality warp is unusual, said study researcher Katherine MacLean, because personality rarely changes much after the age of 25 or 30. (In fact, one recent study found that by first grade our personalities are set pretty much for life.)

"This is one of the first studies to show that you actually can change adult personality," said MacLean, a postdoctoral researcher at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

The root of the change seems to be not the drug itself, MacLean told LiveScience, but the mystical experiences that psilocybin often triggers. These profound, transcendent feelings feel no less real to people for being chemically induced, she said. [Read: How Do Hallucinogens Work?]

"Many years later, people are saying it was one of the most profound experiences of their life," MacLean said. "If you think about it in that context, it's not that surprising that it might be permanent."

Tripping for science

Research on hallucinogens is usually associated with 1960s counterculture figures such as Ken Kesey and his LSD-fueled "Acid Test" parties. But within the last decade, a somber, step-by-step approach to studying the effect of hallucinogens has emerged, MacLean said. Experiments are tightly controlled — it's not easy to get permission to give volunteers illegal drugs — but they are revealing that substances associated more with Grateful Dead concerts than the psychiatrist's office may have medical uses after all.

In Massachusetts, the nonprofit research institute MAPS, or Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, is investigating the possibility of using the hallucinogen MDMA to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. Both LSD and psilocybin are under investigation for their use in treating anxiety; MacLean's postdoctoral adviser at Johns Hopkins, Roland Griffiths, is leading a study to find out if psilocybin might  ease anxiety and depression in cancer patients. Another of Griffiths' studies focuses on using psilocybin to break nicotine addiction.

In the current study, MacLean and her colleagues looked at personality questionnaires from 51 people who had taken psilocybin as part of two separate Johns Hopkins studies. The volunteers were all new to hallucinogenic drugs.

Each person attended between two and five eight-hour drug sessions in which they would sit blindfolded on a couch listening to music — a way to encourage introspection. During one of the sessions, the volunteers received a moderate-to-high dose of psilocybin, but neither they nor the experimenters knew whether they would be swallowing a psilocybin pill or a placebo on any given day.

In one experiment, participants came into the laboratory twice. On one visit they were given the real deal and another time they got Ritalin, which mimics the side effects of psilocybin without the hallucinations.

In another experiment, over a course of five sessions, participants received either a placebo or one of varying doses of the drug. For the purposes of this study, the researchers focused on the high-dose session, which was the same dose given during the first experiment.

Before the drug sessions, the participants filled out the personality questionnaire that measured openness. They also filled out the same questionnaires a few weeks later and then again about 14 months after their high hallucinogenic dose.

Transcendence in a pill

The results, published on Sept. 29, 2011 in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, revealed that while other aspects of personality stayed the same, openness increased after a psilocybin experience. The effect was especially persistent for those who reported a "mystical" experience with their dose. These mystical experiences were marked by a sense of profound connectedness, along with feelings of joy, reverence and peace, MacLean said. 

"It's probably not just psilocybin that causes changes like this, but more these kinds of profound life-changing experiences, whatever flavor they take," she said. "For a lot of people, psilocybin allows them to transcend their ways of thinking about the world."

About 30 of the 51 volunteers had a mystical experience, MacLean said. The openness changes in these participants were larger than those changes typically seen over decades of life experience in adults.

But this is a strictly do-not-try-this-at-home experiment, MacLean cautioned. The participants in the study were under close supervision during their session with the drug. Psychological support and preparation helped keep bad trips to a minimum, but many participants still reported fear, anxiety and distress after taking psilocybin.

"I could see how in an unsupervised setting, if that sort of fear or anxiety set in, the classic bad trip, it could be pretty dangerous," MacLean said, adding that the risk of unsupervised usage outweighs any potential reward. Psilocybin is classified as a Schedule I drug in the U.S., meaning the government considers it to have a high potential for abuse and no legitimate medical purpose.

It's not yet clear whether unsupervised usage would even result in the same changes in openness as seen in the study, MacLean said. The study group was small, and was already more religious and more open than the general population.

MacLean is now researching the effects of combining psilocybin with meditation. There could be therapeutic benefits to boosting openness, she said, including helping people break out of negative thought patterns. The studies might also illuminate the anecdotal connection between hallucinogens and art, she said: "On the most speculative side, this suggests that there might be an application of psilocybin for creativity or more intellectual outcomes that we really haven't explored at all."

LSD Treats Alcoholism
Norwegian researchers say that lysergic acid diethylamide — also known as the hallucinogenic drug LSD — was used in a few clinics in the 1960s and 1970s to help some alcoholics, and should be revisited once again as a possible treatment, according to a study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.
Teri Krebs and Pal-Orjan Johansen of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology looked back at studies from the 1960s and 1970s and  identified six studies with 536 participants that examined the effect LSD had on alcoholism.
“A single dose of LSD had a significant beneficial effect on alcohol misuse at the first reported follow-up assessment, which ranged from 1 to 12 months after discharge from each treatment program,” they wrote.  The effect lasted about six months.

Participants from three studies reported completely abstaining from alcohol, and this effect lasted between one and three months.
Krebs and Johansen noted that one of the previous study authors stated that after taking LSD, some subjects were able “to become much more self-accepting, to show greater openness and accessibility, and to adopt a more positive, optimistic view of their capacities to face future problems.”
“Given the evidence for a beneficial effect of LSD on alcoholism, it is puzzling why this treatment approach has been largely overlooked,” Krebs and Johansen wrote.
They added that other studies found that the psychedelic effects of other substances, such as mescaline, psilocybin (found in magic mushrooms) and ayahuasca were “highly valued and beneficial,” and indigenous groups have claimed that ayahuasca and peyote helped them stay sober.
But they acknowledged that criticism of the previous studies’ reliability and the turbulent history of the infamous drug may also have made it difficult to get approval for clinical trials, which could explain why LSD had never made it to the mainstream as a treatment for alcoholism.
Dr. Ihsan Salloum, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, is a bit more skeptical of LSD’s potential to become a standard treatment option.
“It really has never been a treatment for alcoholism, and it probably would be very controversial to treat alcoholism with something that can potentially cause problems,” he said.
“People have tried in the past, and there are also attempts now to give people substances that will provoke some kind of experience, and supposedly this experience changes the craving for the drug, but I think that sounds too good to be true,” he said.  “This is an area that is very nebulous.”
There aren’t many options for alcoholism treatment right now, he said.  Among the standard therapies are psychotherapy and a few medications.
“We definitely need more treatments, so it would be great if someone can develop something else,” Salloum said.

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