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….
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.
For almost 50 years LSD was banned worldwide and under no circumstances was any scientific experimentation allowed. Only now are we starting to take another look at this long neglected area of science. David Nutt is the man pioneering this rediscovery. His LSD brain imaging experiment has been called the discovery of 2016, more important even than the discovery of gravitational waves. His team at Imperial College London are beginning to unlock the many secrets of our brains and are finding new ways in which psychedelic substances such as psilocybin and LSD could be used to cure mental health disorders. These substances remain a mysterious void in human knowledge, and as a society we are perhaps rightfully wary of them. But the thought of venturing into the unknown has never stopped scientific progress before, and David Nutt is one man intent on shedding light in this expanse of darkness.
So you used to work as a government adviser. What did that life teach you about how the government approaches drugs, as opposed to what you’re doing now? There must be a huge gap.
Yes, there is an enormous gap. That was the great dissolution and that’s why I got sacked. I spent nine years chairing a committee that did the most systematic analysis of drug harms that has ever been done. It developed new methodologies, published papers, and that was enormously fruitful. I believe that’s what governments should do if they want to make good laws. But it gradually became clear to me during that decade that I was working there that they weren’t interested in the facts. They were very happy with the facts that justified their preconceptions, but the facts that conflicted with their preconceptions they tried to dismiss, or hide, or ignore. In the end it became too oppressive. I suddenly discovered one day, during an interview with one of the BBC home affairs correspondents that I was actually speaking like them. I suddenly thought – who is saying these things? This is not me. I had to stop the interview and say, no we can’t go on. Then I started telling the truth and within six months I was sacked.
You are very enthusiastic about green-lighting trials in this area and understandably so. We’re talking about people suffering from anxiety and depression. The Default Mode Network is generally overactive in people with those disorders and Psilocybin has been shown to turn off the DMN and allow the brain to behave in ways never seen before. But we still know very little for certain. Isn’t that terrifying?
The point is we don’t know about it because no one has done it before. It’s quite fascinating. Getting some of this stuff published has been quite difficult. A lot of scientists would prefer if this whole thing went away. It raises challenges to philosophies and theories of science. It is like Einstein. We had a nice theory of physics and then suddenly relativity comes along and we have a different theory. Similarly we had a nice theory of consciousness but then our work comes along and says actually there’s another kind of psychedelic consciousness and that’s associated with very different brain activity. All the scientists working in the area of consciousness are saying, “Hey, get out of here. You’re a fucking psychiatrist.” But the truth is we’ve challenged things and shaken things up.
“I’m sure that within ten years psilocybin will be an accepted alternative treatment for depression.”
The announcement ranked as the physics discovery of the year, confirming Einstein’s century-old theory of gravity and putting the Ligo team on course for a Nobel. But the real excitement is yet to come. For the first quarter of a million years, the cosmos was hidden from astronomers. Now scientists can build gravitational wave observatories and, with them, look back to the birth of the universe. We can study the moment of creation.
It wasn’t the only time astronomers celebrated in 2016. In August, the European Southern Observatory in the Chilean desert saw changes in the light coming from Proxima Centauri, the star nearest to the sun. An Earth-sized planet was pulling the red dwarf around. What thrilled astronomers was that the newly discovered world lay in the star’s habitable zone, that Goldilocks region of space where the temperature is right for liquid water, and along with water, perhaps life. The discovery brought the question, “Are we alone?” to our cosmic doorstep – and with it the realisation that such planets are not rare.
Stephen Hawking is convinced that aliens are out there, but he’s wary of inviting them over. In his 2016 film, Stephen Hawking’s Favourite Places, he warned that meeting up with a technologically advanced bunch of cosmic hooligans might do for humanity what Christopher Columbus did for the Native Americans.
For some people, merging with robots makes sense. Nathan Copeland, a 28-year-old who broke his neck in a car crash, had a robot arm wired directly into his brain. He could move it by thinking, and through signals passed back to his brain, experience a sense of touch. By providing sensory feedback, researchers are edging towards their ultimate goal: robotic limbs that move and feel like real ones.
More than 25 US states have now legalised marijuana for medical uses, but could magic mushrooms be next? A handful of small studies found that psilocybin (the ingredient that made for happy hippies in the 1970s) could lift severe depression in one group of volunteers, and reduce anxiety and depression in cancer patients. For Stephen Ross, director of addiction psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center, the latter results were unprecedented. “We don’t have anything like it,” he said.
“More work needed” was the take home from another trial in 2016; this time for a male contraceptive. At last it seemed that men could shoulder the responsibility for birth control, and all it required was, well, a little prick. The bimonthly hormone jab was nearly as effective as the female pill, but the trial was halted after 20 men dropped out. Some suffered from depression and acne; others had to contend with soaring libidos.
Of the 130 million or so babies born this year, one that arrived in April marked a scientific first. A Jordanian boy was created with DNA from three people (his parents, plus a healthy donor) to prevent him from inheriting a serious genetic disease. The US team who performed the treatment in Mexico say the boy is healthy, but such diseases can take hold later in life. In December, the fertility regulator in the UK gave clinics the green light to apply for a licence to offer the procedure, known as mitochondrial replacement therapy, paving the way for similar births in Britain.
Every year has its own advances, but all tell the story of science. Great ideas work or fail. Achievements are lauded, but make us think twice. With each, we understand that little bit more about ourselves and the universe. And if none of it makes much sense yet? Well, we can always ask the aliens.
• Where did it all go right? For a more positive view of the world in 2017, follow the Guardian’s Half Full online series, with reports on innovative ideas and solutions to the challenges of the day. Wishing you all a happier new year.
guardian.co.uk &169; Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
The idea of incorporating music into psychedelic therapy isn’t new; it was a point of great interest to music therapists in the 60s. But Kaelen is trying to ground it in a solid scientific framework.
He explained that the need to include music in these trials is borne directly from the rising interest in studying psychedelic drugs and considering how they could be used therapeutically: One of the main purposes of the Imperial College team’s research with these substances is to explore how they might be used to help treat mental illnesses such as depression.
In recent trials, it’s been Kaelen’s responsibility (among other things) to design the perfect playlist for a scientifically-sanctioned psychedelic trip with strict research requirements—a task that requires both a creative sensibility and a respect for the rigorous framework of scientific procedures.
Mendel Kaelen, a PhD student in neuroscience at Imperial College, has led several studies investigating the combined influence of music and psychedelic drugs in human trials. One of the challenges? Choosing the music.
Since its 60s counterculture heyday, LSD has been closely associated with music. But it’s not just artistic proclivities that link them: Researchers have found that listening to music can actually affect the LSD experience on a neurological level—and they have brain scans to back it.
The profound impact of LSD on the brain has been laid bare by the first modern scans of people high on the drug.
The images, taken from volunteers who agreed to take a trip in the name of science, have given researchers an unprecedented insight into the neural basis for effects produced by one of the most powerful drugs ever created.
A dose of the psychedelic substance – injected rather than dropped – unleashed a wave of changes that altered activity and connectivity across the brain. This has led scientists to new theories of visual hallucinations and the sense of oneness with the universe some users report.
The brain scans revealed that trippers experienced images through information drawn from many parts of their brains, and not just the visual cortex at the back of the head that normally processes visual information. Under the drug, regions once segregated spoke to one another.
Further images showed that other brain regions that usually form a network became more separated in a change that accompanied users’ feelings of oneness with the world, a loss of personal identity called “ego dissolution”.
David Nutt, the government’s former drugs advisor, professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, and senior researcher on the study, said neuroscientists had waited 50 years for this moment. “This is to neuroscience what the Higgs boson was to particle physics,” he said. “We didn’t know how these profound effects were produced. It was too difficult to do. Scientists were either scared or couldn’t be bothered to overcome the enormous hurdles to get this done.”
LSD, or lysergic acid diethylamide, was first synthesised in 1938 but its extraordinary psychological properties did not become clear until 1943. Throughout the 1950s and 60s the drug had a major impact on psychology and psychiatric research, but its adoption as a recreational drug and its influence on youth culture led to it being banned in the 1960s.
The outlawing of LSD had an immediate effect on scientific research and studies into its effects on the brain and its potential therapeutic uses have been hampered ever since. The latest study was made possible through a crowdfunding campaign and The Beckley Foundation, which researches psychoactive substances.
With his colleague Robin Carhart-Harris, Nutt invited 20 physically and mentally healthy volunteers to attend a clinic on two separate days. One day they received an injection of 75mcg of LSD and on the other they received a placebo instead.
Using three different brain imaging techniques, named arterial spin labelling, resting state MRI and magnetoencephalography, the scientists measured blood flow, functional connections within and between brain networks, and brainwaves in the volunteers on and off the drug.
Carhart-Harris said that on LSD, scans suggested volunteers were “seeing with their eyes shut”, though the images they reported were from their imaginations rather than the world outside. “We saw many more areas of the brain than normal were contributing to visual processing under LSD, even though volunteers’ eyes were closed,” he said. The more prominent the effect, the more intense people rated their dreamlike visions.
Under the influence, brain networks that deal with vision, attention, movement and hearing became far more connected, leading to what looked like a “more unified brain”, he said. But at the same time, other networks broke down. Scans revealed a loss of connections between part of the brain called the parahippocampus and another region known as the retrosplenial cortex.
The effect could underpin the altered state of consciousness long linked to LSD, and the sense of the self-disintegrating and being replaced with a sense of oneness with others and nature. “This experience is sometimes framed in a religious or spiritual way, and seems to be associated with improvements in wellbeing after the drug’s effects have subsided,” Carhart-Harris said.
The study could pave the way for LSD or related chemicals to be used to treat psychiatric disorders. Nutt said the drug could pull the brain out of thought patterns seen in depression and addiction through its effects on brain networks.
Amanda Feilding, director of the Beckley Foundation, said: “We are finally unveiling the brain mechanisms underlying the potential of LSD, not only to heal, but also to deepen our understanding of consciousness itself.”
This article was amended on 11 April 2016 to give the correct amount (75mcg) of LSD administered to each volunteer.
guardian.co.uk &169; Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
Equivalent effects of acute tryptophan depletion on REM sleep in ecstasy users and controls
This study sought to test the association between 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine use, serotonergic function and sleep. Materials and methods Ambulatory polysomnography was used to measure three nights sleep in 12 ecstasy users and 12 controls after screening (no intervention), a tryptophan- free amino acid mixture (acute tryptophan depletion (ATD)) and a tryptophan-supplemented control mixture.
Results ATD significantly decreased rapid eye movement (REM) sleep onset latency, increased the amount of REM sleep and increased the amount of stage 2 sleep in the first 3 h of sleep. There was no difference between ecstasy users’ and controls’ sleep on the screening night or after ATD.
Discussion These findings imply that the ecstasy users had not suffered significant serotonergic damage as indexed by sleep.