Psychedelic medicine: the potential, the people, the politics

A multicoloured pill capsule
Trippy treatment

James Worrell/Getty

It was quite a comedown in the 1970s when research into psychedelic medicine was virtually shut down in the West. Many countries were beginning to classify psychedelics as “schedule 1”, making them illegal, on the grounds that they were drugs of “abuse” with no agreed-upon medical use.

The stigma, and many obstacles, remain. For many people – crucially those who hold the purse strings – research into psychedelic drugs has a whiff of disreputability about it. As our exclusive interview with Robin Carhart-Harris of Imperial College London reveals, anyone daring to lead this science has to perform a balancing act, with their reputations always on the line.

Nevertheless, the field is showing the green shoots of a renaissance. Here’s a round up of New Scientist’s coverage on the potential, the people and the politics of psychedelic medicine….

The people

Many creators of psychedelic drugs famously tested their products on themselves first. Alexander Shulgin, considered the world’s foremost “psychonaut”, is among those featured in our gallery of self-experimenters.

Over the years, New Scientist has interviewed many key players in psychedelics research, including: Robin Carhart-Harris; David Nutt of Imperial College London, also a former advisor to the UK government on the misuse of drugs; Amanda Feilding, a drugs policy reformer who founded the Beckley Foundation, which promotes and funds clinical research into the therapeutic possibilities of psychedelics; Rick Doblin of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies in Santa Cruz, California; and Torsten Passie of Hannover Medical School. From the other side of the fence, we’ve spoken to medicine maker David Nichols, whose work was subverted by manufacturers of recreational drugs; and a maker of legal highs, Dr Z, who argued that mind-altering drugs should be legalised for the improvement of society.


Watch this psychedelic space for the latest developments.

More on these topics:

Source: Psychedelic medicine: the potential, the people, the politics | New Scientist

Ecstasy users report different sleep to matched controls

Current and former ecstasy users report different sleep to matched controls: a web-based questionnaire study

This study sought to test the association between ecstasy use and abnormal sleep.

An anonymous web-based questionnaire containing questions on drug use and sleep was completed by 1035 individuals. From this large sample, a group of 89 ecstasy users were found who reported very little use of other drugs.

This ”ecstasy-only“ group was further divided into two groups of 31 current users and 58 abstinent users. The subjective sleep of current and former ecstasy-only users was compared with that of matched controls. Patients were asked to rate their sleep according to:

1) sleep quality
2) sleep latency
3) night time awakenings
4) total sleep time.

Current ecstasy-only users reported significantly worse sleep quality (P < 0.05) and a greater total sleep time (P < 0.001) than controls. It was inferred that these differences might be due to recovery from the acute effects of the drug. Abstinent ecstasy-only users reported significantly more nighttime awakenings than controls (P < 0.01). These subjective findings are in agreement with the objective findings of previous studies showing persistent sleep abnormalities in ecstasy users.


Download Now

The effects of psilocybin and MDMA on between-network resting state functional connectivity

The effects of psilocybin and MDMA on between-network resting state functional connectivity in healthy volunteers

Perturbing a system and observing the consequences is a classic scientific strategy for understanding a phenomenon.

Psychedelic drugs perturb consciousness in a marked and novel way and thus are powerful tools for studying its mechanisms. In the present analysis, we measured changes in resting-state functional connectivity (RSFC) between a standard template of different independent components analysis (ICA)-derived resting state networks (RSNs) under the influence of two different psychoactive drugs, the stimulant/psychedelic hybrid, MDMA, and the classic psychedelic, psilocybin.

Both were given in placebo-controlled designs and produced marked subjective effects, although reports of more profound changes in consciousness were given after psilocybin. Between-network RSFC was generally increased under psilocybin, implying that networks become less differentiated from each other in the psychedelic state.

Decreased RSFC between visual and sensorimotor RSNs was also observed. MDMA had a notably less marked effect on between-network RSFC, implying that the extensive changes observed under psilocybin may be exclusive to classic psychedelic drugs and related to their especially profound effects on consciousness.

The novel analytical approach applied here may be applied to other altered states of consciousness to improve our characterization of different conscious states and ultimately advance our understanding of the brain mechanisms underlying them.


Download Now

A web based survey on mephedrone

A web-based survey on mephedrone

Mephedrone (4-methylmethcathinone) is a substituted cathinone with stimulant properties. The popularity of mephedrone in the UK rose sharply in 2009 after it became seen as a legal, cheap and easily available alternative to MDMA (ecstasy). Adverse events associated with its use, including a series of alleged deaths, attracted media attention and the hastening of a government report (ACMD, 2010). Mephedrone was made Class B in April 2010, largely on the basis that it shares similar properties to amphetamines, most of which are Class B. The present study sought to collect informa- tion on various aspects of mephedrone use via a web-based survey targeted at mephedrone users. An extensive web-based survey on mephedrone has been carried out before (Winstock et al., 2011) but because the present survey opened shortly after the ban, its results extend current knowledge by providing information on the opinions and behaviours of mephedrone users during this period.


This study was approved by the Imperial College Research Ethics Commit- tee. The survey was built using Bristol Online Survey (, a web survey development service. The survey can be viewed at the follow- ing address ( The survey was formally advertised on the websites:, and It was entirely anonymous, took 20–30 min to complete, and featured 56 questions requiring both restricted/categorical and open responses. Completion of every question was mandatory. Subjects were informed that they should only complete the survey if they had taken mephedrone on at least one occasion in the past. The first forms were received on 17th May 2010 and the last forms on 21st September 2010. The survey questions addressed a broad range of issues, from parameters specific to mephedrone use to the perceived harms of other drugs. This report focuses on the questions that were specific to mephedrone.


Basic and demographic data One thousand, five hundred and six completed forms were received. All respondents declared that they had taken mephedrone at least once. Most had heard about the survey through or Eighty four percent of respondents were male and 80% percent lived in Britain. Their mean age was 26 (SD = 9, range 10–73).


Download Now

MDMA on subjective and BOLD-fMRI responses to autobiographical memories

The effect of acutely administered MDMA on subjective and BOLD-fMRI responses to favourite and worst autobiographical memories

3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) is a potent monoamine-releaser that is widely used as a recreational drug. Preliminary work has supported the potential of MDMA in psychotherapy for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The neurobiological mechanisms underlying its putative efficacy are, however, poorly understood. Psychotherapy for PTSD usually requires that patients revisit traumatic memories, and it has been argued that this is easier to do under MDMA. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to investigate the effect of MDMA on recollection of favourite and worst autobiographical memories (AMs). Nineteen participants (five females) with previous experience with MDMA performed a blocked AM recollection (AMR) paradigm after ingestion of 100 mg of MDMA-HCl or ascorbic acid (placebo) in a double-blind, repeated-measures design.

Memory cues describing participants’ AMs were read by them in the scanner. Favourite memories were rated as significantly more vivid, emotionally intense and positive after MDMA than placebo and worst memories were rated as less negative. Functional MRI data from 17 participants showed robust activations to AMs in regions known to be involved in AMR.

There was also a significant effect of memory valence: hippo-campal regions showed preferential activations to favourite memories and executive regions to worst memories. MDMA augmented activations to favourite memories in the bilateral fusiform gyrus and somatosensory cortex and attenuated activations to worst memories in the left anterior temporal cortex. These findings are consistent with a positive emotional-bias likely mediated by MDMA’s pro-monoaminergic pharmacology.


Download Now

The Effects of Acutely Administered MDMA on Spontaneous Brain Function

The Effects of Acutely Administered 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine on Spontaneous Brain Function in Healthy Volunteers Measured with Arterial Spin Labeling and Blood Oxygen Level–Dependent Resting State Functional Connectivity.

The compound 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) is a potent monoamine releaser that produces an acute euphoria in most individuals.

Methods: In a double-blind, placebo-controlled, balanced-order study, MDMA was orally administered to 25 physically and mentally healthy individuals. Arterial spin labeling and seed-based resting state functional connectivity (RSFC) were used to produce spatial maps displaying changes in cerebral blood flow (CBF) and RSFC after MDMA administration. Participants underwent two arterial spin labeling and two blood oxygen level–dependent scans in a 90-minute scan session; MDMA and placebo study days were separated by 1 week.

Marked increases in positive mood were produced by MDMA. Decreased CBF only was observed after MDMA, and this was localized to the right medial temporal lobe (MTL), thalamus, inferior visual cortex, and the somatosensory cortex. Decreased CBF in the right amygdala and hippocampus correlated with ratings of the intensity of global subjective effects of MDMA. The RSFC results complemented the CBF results, with decreases in RSFC between midline cortical regions, the medial prefrontal cortex, and MTL regions, and increases between the amygdala and hippocampus. There were trend-level correlations between these effects and ratings of intense and positive subjective effects.

Conclusions: The MTLs appear to be specifically implicated in the mechanism of action of MDMA, but further work is required to elucidate how the drug’s characteristic subjective effects arise from its modulation of spontaneous brain activity.


Download Now