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Magazine
Jan 12, 2021

The Psychedelic Revival

Psychedelic drugs have long been linked to Woodstock-era counterculture, but scientists are now hoping to harness their power to treat mental illnesses.

Eliana JordanMagazine Editor

Dylan Furdyk rifles through some papers for a moment to find a quote by Stanislav Grof, a Czech psychiatrist, during our phone call to discuss, of all things, psychedelic drugs. “Ah, here it is”, they say, their end of the line going briefly quiet. “‘Psychedelics will be for psychiatry what the microscope is for biology, and the telescope is for astronomy.’”

Furdyk is a final-year psychology student in Trinity, and is currently in the process of applying for a PhD in psychedelic research, determined to advance data prematurely cast aside just as its potential began to break over the horizon. The quote by Grof foretold something few scientists have since been willing to examine, but a growing number of experts in psychiatry are now working to confirm.

“I think as [psychedelics] become less and less stigmatized, there is more avenue for international acceptance and international research to continue”, Furdyk says.

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Furdyk is among a growing number of advocates and experts seeking to overturn the misconceptions that have long stagnated the research around psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin – research which, as far back as the 1950s, shows unprecedented potential for treating a multitude of mental illnesses.

Psychedelics will be for psychiatry what the microscope is for biology, and the telescope is for astronomy

In 1943, Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann became the first to synthesise and ingest LSD, embarking on an acid trip which indelibly altered the course of the 20th century. His discovery catalysed a new field of study – psychedelics were regarded as “miracle drugs” by those in the psychiatric field, and in the 1950s and early 1960s, the US National Institutes of Health funded more than 130 studies exploring the clinical utility of LSD, yielding vastly positive results, most notably among sufferers of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and addiction.

But not long after these studies began, psychedelics disseminated among the hands of recreational users, namely bohemians and hippies. Powerful hallucinogens — whose function and effect researchers were only just beginning to explore — inadvertently fell under the banner of “counterculture”, becoming associated with anti-Vietnam war sentiment, civil rights protests, and the Woodstock-era degeneracy of otherwise straight-laced American youths.

Psychedelics quickly amassed a slew of bad publicity, thanks in large part to the heedless encouragement of exiled Harvard psychology professor Timothy Leary and his infamous phrase: “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”

Parents and lawmakers alike were incensed.

I think as psychedelics become less and less stigmatized, there is more avenue for international acceptance and international research to continue

President Nixon saw the risk of psychedelics, those mysterious substances awakening a spiritual rebellion among the free souls of the counterculture, prompting them to “turn on” and, more dangerously, to “drop out.” Worst of all, he knew these young people would not fight in his overseas wars.

The ultimately damning recreational use of psychedelics by propagators of the 1960s counterculture in the US led to their ban in 1971. They were banned on all fronts: promising psychiatric studies so recently set in motion by Hofmann’s discovery were brought to a sudden halt, and psychedelics were relegated to the status of dangerous contraband.

But the seeds planted all those years ago, instead of being uprooted, were simply waiting to be sown.

Thanks to a number of prominent psychedelic crusaders, resolute in pursuing the substances’ unharnessed potential, psychedelic drugs like LSD, psilocybin, mescaline and DMT – among others – have remained an omnipresent curiosity, and are gradually regaining traction in research facilities around the world.

“There are so many studies to do – there’s no reason why Ireland can’t have a psychedelic science research centre in the years ahead to properly explore these molecules and the therapeutic potential”, Dr John Kelly explains to me over the phone.

Kelly works in the department of psychiatry at Trinity as well as at Tallaght Hospital, where he is currently involved in two clinical trials assessing the psychiatric utility of psilocybin, the active agent in what are commonly known as “magic mushrooms”.

Dr John Kelly and his team are currently working on two clinical trials assessing the psychiatric power of psilocybin, which is found in magic mushrooms

Kelly was drawn into psychedelic research through his early interest in neuroscience and the desire to translate the many advances in the field of psychiatry into long-term benefits for patients. He was spurred on by a fascination with the psychedelic molecules themselves, mystified by their ability to “profoundly alter one’s consciousness in a transient manner that can be potentially harnessed”, leading to a revision of maladaptive belief systems and thought patterns in a way that is of great therapeutic value.

But those therapeutic benefits are contingent on appropriate conditions, with experts facilitating a unique synergy between elements of pharmacology and psychology. Researchers have found that the efficacy of the substance is largely dependent upon the setting in which it is taken, and the mindset in which the subject enters the experience. It’s a duo experts repeatedly refer to as “set and setting.”

“If you just gave [psilocybin] to people in a white room, which they did in the fifties and sixties, you’re not going to make it out with a therapeutic effect. So you need to do it in the right supportive environment, with the right preparation and trusting relationships with the team, and then the integration thereafter, so it’s quite a lot to it”, Kelly explains.

He tells me that there are currently two parallel trials going on in Dublin, both of which are focused on treatment-resistant depression.

Trinity’s Prof Veronica O’Keane is the principal investigator on both trials, and Kelly the sub-investigator. The studies are a combined effort on behalf of Tallaght University Hospital, Trinity and Compass Pathways, a mental health care company focused on developing psilocybin therapy for the treatment of depression.

Kelly explains that, in the first trial focused on comparing different doses of psilocybin, the subjects participate for 18 weeks, receiving approximately three to four preparatory therapy sessions with trained psychologists before receiving the dose, and the same number of sessions thereafter.

There’s no reason why Ireland can’t have a psychedelic science research centre in the years ahead to properly explore these molecules and the therapeutic potential

I ask Kelly to elaborate on what these sessions with the therapist entail, those integral components which balance the pharmacological with the psychological, setting these clinical trials apart from those that have come before.

He clarifies that the sessions do not adhere to any particular school of psychology, but rather focus on supporting the patient by, in the preparatory sessions, setting out intentions for what one potentially wants to achieve from the experience.

When the drug is administered, the therapists accompany the subject in the “dedicated psilocybin room, and they remain in the room with the participants for the duration of the experience, which can last between six to eight hours”, Kelly explains.

Following the experience, therapists meet with the subjects in several sessions over the next 12 weeks to talk through the experience and integrate new insights into the subject’s life.

The other trial is 12 weeks long, with subjects receiving regulated doses of psilocybin in the context of psychological support, but with the added variable of select serotonin-reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). This means the subjects are taking antidepressants at the same time as the clinical trial, thus determining the efficacy of psilocybin therapy with the presence of SSRIs. Kelly tells me this experiment is the first of its kind in the world thanks to its rigorous methodology, and hopes it will contribute to a broader understanding of how best to incorporate psilocybin in a psychiatric treatment.

“We don’t know the optimal dosing intervals for each person, and that’s what I’d like to see going forward, is a precise, personalised approach to psilocybin therapy”, Kelly says.

As an example, Kelly explains that if someone responded to the study after a year reporting a sustained increase in mood over that period of time, clinicians could then determine the correct dosing interval for that patient, re-administering the dose at intervals of a year or two years’ time, based on that subject’s individual experience.

We don’t know the optimal dosing intervals for each person, and that’s what I’d like to see going forward, is a precise, personalised approach to psilocybin therap

In terms of the dosage amount, these trials intend to plunge subjects into the deep end. I put forth an inquiry about microdosing – ingesting small amounts of a psychedelic like LSD or psilocybin with the goal of achieving heightened creativity and focus – which is answered almost unanimously with ambivalence.

There is, quite simply, not enough data.

Furdyk notes the growing ubiquity of psychedelic microdosing among tech heads in Silicon Valley, where it has been reported that LSD is taken in small doses to boost productivity, but it remains an area lacking in sufficient data to give such claims empirical substance.

Kelly stands by the more conclusive data that has come from trials using full doses of psilocybin.

“That higher dose will be needed to achieve that alteration of consciousness which is called various things”, he says. “Some people call it ego-dissolution, some people call it emotional breakthrough – that is one of the main predictors of therapeutic experience.”

Intrigued by what this alteration in consciousness might mean to an individual who has experienced it, I spoke to a Trinity student over Zoom to discuss his personal exploits in psychedelic usage. He is in his final year, and spoke to me on condition of anonymity.

“It didn’t seem like the stereotypical drug experience”, he says. “It’s not a drug you do to get away from stuff, It’s not a drug you do for the craic. It’s not a drug you do to party. It’s something you do to go inside yourself and find out more about yourself.”

Psychedelic drugs were once associated with hippie culture and the anti-violence, Woodstock-era counterculture, but the war on drugs brought their use as a recreational and medicinal drug to an end – until recently.

Harry Forkan for The University Times

The student notes that he had not seen himself as the “type” of person who would use psychedelics, associating the drugs, like so many do, with the hippie movement, and the conception that they would leave his brain fried.

He never felt tempted to try psychedelics until college, when he began reading online about other people’s meaningful experiences with them.

Since then, he tells me he has taken psychedelics roughly seven times, mostly using LSD, and asserts that he has learned something from each experience. His decision to try LSD, despite feeling “really, really nervous” the first time, was motivated by self-discovery.

“I was an adamant atheist until I did psychedelics. Now I’m more agnostic with an interest in eastern religions. So that was the one main thing that I took away from psychedelics.”

He is not the only person to undergo a spiritual reorientation as a result of a psychedelic experience. The overwhelming sense of profoundness, of “ego-dissolution”, as Kelly calls it, or connectedness with the world at large, can give one an entirely different perspective on their purpose in life. For this student, these new perspectives were revelatory.

“It’s a humbling process”, he explains. “You kind of realise, ‘oh god, I am such a small little thing – my life is very insignificant’, and you can find great comfort in insignificance, or you can be quite scared, and you’re probably going to be somewhere in between the two.”

I was an adamant atheist until I did psychedelics. Now I’m more agnostic with an interest in eastern religions. So that was the one main thing that I took away from psychedelics

The student has evidently spent a good deal of time researching the world of psychology and its intersection with psychedelics, echoing sentiments voiced by the experts. He reiterates the importance of set and setting, of being in comfortable company and in a healthy state of mind, and avoiding the substances if one has a history of mental illness.

Within these bounds, there exists a kaleidoscopic world of new perspectives which psychedelics can unearth in one’s mind, supposing the mind is willing to move along with the current of such transformation.

“Everything is constantly changing – you hope to be a person who’s constantly growing and changing”, the student says. “Psychedelics are a tool for that change, but change is going to happen anyway.”

He touches upon an important sentiment to keep in mind with regards to psychedelic drugs – that despite their potential for miraculous transformation, such change can only occur if the participant is open to it.

The same thing is explained to me in various combinations of words by various people, but Veronica Bonnelle says it best: “The thing to be aware of with this compound is that it’s just going to help a change that you are willing to take on. If you don’t want to change, [psychedelics] are not going to change you. It’s really working with the intentions, and I think that’s important to be aware of. They are just facilitating intentions.”

Bonnelle is the Scientific Officer for the Beckley Institute, a foundation working towards global drug policy reform and conducting scientific research into psychedelics.

She emphasises the great merit of administering psychedelics in a therapeutic setting, structured to benefit the patient as greatly as possible through the assistance of trained therapists and numerous preparatory and integrational sessions. By reinforcing intentions for a psychedelic experience, a more profound and lasting impact is possible.

Everything is constantly changing – you hope to be a person who’s constantly growing and changing. Psychedelics are a tool for that change, but change is going to happen anyway

Bonnelle has been working at the Beckley Institute for three years, helping the director to coordinate various research projects and collaborations exploring psychedelic substances.

“I’ve always been interested in altered states”, she tells me. “That’s something I’ve always found really fascinating, how to add to your consciousness. And that was one interest, and then on the other side I was also interested in brain function and neuroscience.”

Bonnelle completed her studies in neuroscience and earned a PhD focusing on traumatic brain injury and cognitive deficit before she learned about research using psilocybin to treat depression. Here she discovered the coalescence of her two fields of interest, though she tells me it took her a long time to gain employment in the realm of psychedelic studies since there is so little funding for new researchers in this area.

With limited funding, a great deal of her work lies in deciding which projects to prioritise. One project the institute finished recently was a study on microdosing, particularly looking at the effects of different doses on the subjects’ mood, cognitive function and tolerance to pain. The next step is to see how these doses affect neural plasticity.

Neural plasticity, Bonnelle explains, has to do with the way in which our brains make new connections, forming the basis of learning and flexible behaviour, inducing an ability to grow.

“There is a growth hormone called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNS) and these have been shown to be a good marker of neural plasticity… and what we have found with a microdose of LSD is that there is an increase in BDNS that is proportional to the dose of LSD received”, she says.

That’s something I’ve always found really fascinating, how to add to your consciousness. And that was one interest, and then on the other side I was also interested in brain function and neuroscience

She points to the science behind a phenomenon the student focuses on during our Zoom call, that sudden and profound capacity for growth, self-reflection and positive change brought about by a psychedelic experience. It is the same phenomenon that Kelly mentions, the ineffable emotional breakthrough, the ego-dissolution, that is reached with higher doses of psychedelic substances.

Psychedelics’ impact on neural plasticity cannot be understated.

The student tells me at one point that he believes psychedelics have actually made him a better person, and will continue to use them throughout his life in order to continue learning about himself. This phenomenon is not news to Bonnelle.

She has seen the value of psychedelic research firsthand. She is confident in its validity, assured by burgeoning data that drugs like psilocybin and LSD can offer a new hope for people suffering from a variety of mental illnesses, people who have so often felt as though there is nothing left that can help them.

A recurring statement among those I spoke to is this: there simply is not enough research. Scientists are rightfully unwilling to make claims without data to support them, and Kelly and Bonnelle are in this position with regards to many elements of psychedelic research. Many argue that the decriminalisation of psychedelic substances would allow, at the very least, a more open-minded approach to their continued exploration. As long as psychedelics remain categorised as Class-A contraband, significant developments in clinical research will likewise remain shrouded in controversy and mistrust, undermining the legitimate benefits experts are ceaselessly discovering.

And there are, without a doubt, benefits yet to discover. Data from experimental trials with psychedelics have yielded results which point to prospective treatments for previously untreatable illnesses and put experts like the ones I spoke to at the cusp of something vital.

Despite what misconceptions may linger in the magnetic air surrounding psychedelics, the complexity of our brains and what these drugs can reveal about them remains a thrilling promise to Kelly, who wishes we could all be more appreciative of just how miraculous our minds truly are.

“I mean, 90 billion neurons, 100 trillion synapses, then you add in molecules which can alter it in a transient manner, in the right context with the right therapeutic support, to potentially lead to therapeutic benefits”, he says, awestruck. “I think that’s pretty amazing.”

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