The following appeal was written by Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, founder of psychedelicscience.org.uk
What’s is psychedelicscience.org.uk
Psychedelicscience.org.uk is a crowd-funding campaign that aims to raise funds for scientific research with psychedelic drugs, with a special focus on a clinical trial assessing the safety and efficacy of psilocybin as a treatment for depression.
Psychedelicscience.org.uk was founded by Dr Robin Carhart-Harris in August 2014. Robin is a psychopharmacologist working at Imperial College London in the Centre for Neuropsychopharmacology, on scientific research with psychedelic drugs. Professor David Nutt is the Edmond J Safra Chair in Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London. David and Robin have been working with Amanda Feilding, Director of the Beckley Foundation, carrying out pioneering brain-imaging research with psychedelic drugs, such as psilocybin (magic mushrooms), MDMA and LSD, as part of the Beckley Foundation/Imperial College Psychopharmacological Research Programme.
Why does this matter?
Depression is a serious global problem. It’s the leading cause of disability worldwide, is linked to over half of all suicides, and affects some 350 million people. Worse still, the prevalence of depression is increasing; the World Health Organisation estimates that depression will become the leading overall contributor to the global burden of disease by 2030.
Mental health research is seriously under-funded, especially when compared with other major illnesses such as cancer and heart disease and so the funding that is available for depression research isn’t in any way proportional to the size of the problem.
Depression is also extremely difficult to treat. Around half of patients with depression do not respond to treatment with antidepressant medication and these medications, while effective in some patients, are associated with side-effects and need to be taken daily. Worse still, up to 20% of people do not respond to any treatment at all and this leaves them isolated and with little hope. Options for severe depression are limited and include such things as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and more aggressive medication strategies. Our psilocybin research is focused on helping this group of ‘treatment resistant’ patients by offering an alternative option for their depression.
Why might psilocybin be helpful?
Psilocybin occurring naturally in certain mushroom species has been used for millennia by some cultures for healing purposes but Western medicine only became privy to the therapeutic potential of psilocybin in the late 1950s when the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann identified it as the major psychoactive ingredient of ‘magic mushrooms’. Thereafter, for a period of about 10 years, psilocybin was used in psychotherapy for the treatment of various psychiatric disorders including depression. The results of this work were extremely promising, with some psychiatrists heralding psychedelics as breakthrough medicines with immense scientific and therapeutic potential. Indeed, one even declared that: “Psychedelics could be for psychiatry what the microscope is for biology or the telescope for astronomy.” (Stan Grof, 1975)
Regrettably, a conservative backlash on psychedelics occurred in the late 1960s, fuelled by escalating recreational use and a surrounding hysteria stoked by sensationalistic media reporting. These events led to the cessation of legitimate scientific and clinical research with psychedelics and this effective prohibition on psychedelic science lasted for several decades.
Thankfully, clinical research with psychedelics is currently experiencing somewhat of a renaissance. Recent pilot studies in the US have suggested that psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy may be effective for treating obsessive compulsive, anxiety related to dying and depression. Other research teams have been looking at the potential of psilocybin to treat alcohol and tobacco dependence, with very promising preliminary results and one particularly impressive study found that just a single experience with psilocybin improved well-being and life satisfaction for well over one year in two thirds of their study participants.
At Imperial College, our own research has focused on the brain effects of psychedelics, using cutting-edge brain imaging techniques such as fMRI and MEG. In 2012, we published a paper reporting that psilocybin changes brain activity in a manner that is consistent with a large range of effective treatments for depression. More specifically, we found that circuits that are over-active and reinforced in depression become loosened and normalised under psilocybin. Briefly, psilocybin works on the serotonin system. Serotonin is a chemical messenger in the brain that is linked to the regulation of mood. Broadly speaking, increased serotonin signalling is associated with elevated mood, and psilocybin (which, molecularly, looks a lot like serotonin) works to mimic some of serotonin’s actions. That psilocybin does this, may explain why it may be useful in the treatment of depression.
Why do you need my help?
In 2012, Imperial College London were awarded a research grant from the UK government’s Medical Research Council (MRC) to set-up a clinical trial to investigate the antidepressant potential of psilocybin. The study is sponsored by Imperial College London and has ethical approval. The UK Home Office have licensed the importation and storage of the psilocybin that we will use. We have purchased the psilocybin and are currently organising its encapsulation so that it conforms to the required standards for investigatory medicines. However, although we now have ethics approval for the study, obtaining this was a very lengthy and difficult process, as was obtaining medicinal-standard psilocybin and because of the associated delays, the MRC funds are now running low. Despite the MRC being supportive of our situation, we are concerned that the trial may not happen unless we can raise additional funds. It’s for this reason that we are reaching out to you for your help!
Winning funding from a government agency for scientific research with a psychedelic was a major boon, not just for us, but for psychedelic science worldwide and in many ways it typified the current progress that is being made in this field. However, it would be a tragedy if this project were to run out of funds and not take place because of costly delays enforced on it by excessively heavy bureaucracy. So many people seem to want this research to happen, and you may be one of these. If you are, we are appealing to you directly to help us make this study happen!
I have been inspired to set up this campaign because of the many people who have contacted David Nutt and me expressing their support and enthusiasm for the research that we’ve been doing. It is important that everyone be aware that the renaissance in psychedelic science has not occurred because scientists and psychiatrists have started to reconsider the scientific and therapeutic potential of these drugs but because inspiring individuals, such as Amanda Feilding, have put forward the funds to actually make this research happen. All research depends on funding and if the funds aren’t there, the research simply can’t happen. The public should know that the current renaissance in psychedelic science has been driven more by bodies like the Beckley Foundation, MAPS and the Heffter research Institute and the inspirational people that support them, than by any scientist or clinician.
Psychedelicscience.org.uk is intended to complement these foundations but with a special focus on a specific project. So, if you believe in our vision and conviction to try and improve the lives of patients suffering from depression, then please give us your support! This is an incredibly worthwhile cause and we are perfectly placed to deliver on it. There are two ways in which you can donate to us: 1) By donating to the Beckley Foundation or drugscience.org.uk and stating your support for the depression trial, or 2) by contacting the administrator of this site via email.
Why should I donate to psychedelicscience.org.uk? Can I trust you to deliver on this project?
I’d like to end by providing some reassurance about why a donation to psychedelicscience.org.uk will be put to good use. About our track record: Over the last 5 or 6 years, with the support of the Beckley Foundation and a dedicated team of collaborators, we have completed the world’s first functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and magnetoencephalography (MEG) studies with psilocybin. fMRI and MEG provide the best spatial and temporal resolution respectively of any functional human brain imaging technology that is available today, and we have utilised these facilities to provide the most detailed account to-date on how psychedelics works on the human brain to produce their special psychological effects. We’ve also completed the world’s first resting-state fMRI study of MDMA and are about to complete the world’s first fMRI and MEG study with LSD (September, 2014). Thus, as part of the Beckley Foundation/Imperial College Psychopharmacological Research Programme, over the last few years, it’s fair to say we have emerged as one of the foremost research teams in the domain of psychedelic science, with research reports in major scientific journals such as Biological Psychiatry, the Journal of Neuroscience, Human Brain Mapping and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. David Nutt has a vast amount of experience leading clinical trials with investigational medicines, so our team are ideally placed to deliver on this project. We have already done much of the leg-work setting up the trial and, pending funding, anticipate treating our first patients in Spring 2015.
So you should feel reassured that a donation to psychedelicscience.org.uk will be a donation to a passionate, dedicated, experienced and expert team that can deliver on a truly pioneering project for an incredibly worthwhile cause. In a forthcoming video I will talk more about the details of the clinical trial itself, including comments on the study design and what the sort of funds we need to raise to make this project a success.
Please donate to psychedelicscience.org.uk and help us to work towards the development of a new treatment for depression. Thank you very much for listening.