Prior to 1970, and the UN Conventions on Drugs, the classical psychedelic psilocybin was used as treatments in psychiatry for resistant forms of depression, anxiety and addictions. Research at that time suggested that they may help some people who were psychologically ’stuck’ in the process of therapy to attain new perspectives on their difficulties within a safe and psychologically supportive context. This, in turn, could lead to enduring, positive behavioural change with ongoing support.
After 1970, caught up in the US-led ‘war on drugs’, LSD, psilocybin and mescaline were designated ‘Schedule 1’ substances in the UN Conventions on Drugs, meaning that they could not be prescribed by medical doctors outside of an authorised research study. Funding for such studies dried up in the wake of hardening socio-political attitudes towards psychoactive substances. As a consequence, this area of clinical research in psychiatry came to a standstill.
After a very long pause there has been a slow but steady resurgence of clinical research interest into psilocybin, which is the active component of so-called ‘magic mushrooms’. And for good reason. Studies from the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research and elsewhere suggest that psilocybin, a classic psychedelic drug, has significant potential for treating various psychiatric conditions such as depression and drug dependence disorders.
One study – published in Psychopharmacology – sought to address a simple but somewhat perplexing question: Why do people use psilocybin?
The study provides insight into the psychoactive effects that distinguish psilocybin from other hallucinogenic substances. The findings suggest that feelings of spiritual and psychological insight play an important role in the drug’s popularity.
“Psilocybin, in the form of hallucinogenic mushrooms, has been used for centuries for the psychoactive effects. Recent US survey studies show that lifetime psilocybin use is relatively modest and quite stable over a period of decades,” Professor Griffiths, the study leader, explained.
However, the US National Institute on Drug Abuse does not consider psilocybin to be addictive because it does not cause uncontrollable drug seeking behavior, does not produce classic euphoria, does not produce a withdrawal syndrome, and does not activate brain mechanisms associated with classic drugs of abuse.
In the double-blind study, 20 healthy participants with histories of hallucinogen use received doses of psilocybin, dextromethorphan (DXM), and a placebo during five experiment sessions.
The researchers found that most of the participants reported wanting to take psilocybin again. But only 1 in 4 reported wanting to take DXM again.
“The study showed that several subjective features of the drug experience predicted participants’ desire to take psilocybin again: psychological insight, meaningfulness of the experience, increased awareness of beauty, positive social effects (e.g. empathy), positive mood (e.g. inner peace), amazement, and mystical-type effects,” Griffiths explained. Nearly half of the participants rated their experience following the highest psilocybin dose to be among the top most meaningful and psychologically insightful of their lives.
“The study provides an answer to the puzzle for why psilocybin has been used by people for hundreds of years, yet it does not share any of the features used to define classic drugs of abuse. The answer seems to reside in the ability of psilocybin to produce unique changes in the human conscious experience that give rise to meaning, insight, the experience of beauty and mystical-type effects,” Griffiths said.
Another study at Kings College London found that Psilocybin might also facilitate improvements in cognitive function including memory and problem solving.
So encouraging have been some of these results, that the Psychedelic Trials Group at the Centre for Affective Disorders at KCL is developing an accredited training programme for psychedelic-assisted therapies in clinical research.