What is Psychedelic Science Org UK?
Psychedelic science 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.
Psychedelic Science 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.