Researchers are giving psychedelics to cancer patients to help alleviate their despair — and it’s working
by Linda Marsa
On a bone-chilling morning in February last year, Nick Fernandez bundled up and took the subway from his Manhattan apartment to the Bluestone Center for Clinical Research, which is located in an art deco-style building on the Lower East Side. A 27-year-old graduate student in psychology with dark, wavy hair and delicate, bird-like features, Fernandez was excited and nervous. He had eaten a light breakfast consisting of a bagel and industrial-strength coffee in preparation for another journey he was about to take. Fernandez had signed up to be a subject in a New York University study into the use of psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms, to relieve mental anguish in people with terminal or recurrent cancer.
This essay describes the founding of the Heffter Research Institute in 1993 and its development up to the present. The Institute is the only scientific research organization dedicated to scientific research into the medical value of psychedelics, and it has particularly focused on the use of psilocybin.
A pilot study of the value of psilocybin in treating alcoholism at the University of New Mexico also is nearing completion, with a larger two-site study being planned. Other studies underway involve the use of psilocybin in a smoking cessation program and a study of the effects of psilocybin in long-term meditators, both at JHU. The institute is now planning for a Phase 3 clinical trial of psilocybin to treat distress in end-stage cancer patients.
At the Psychedelic Science 2013 conference held in Oakland, CA in April 2013, Heffter founder Dave Nichols and Heffter Zurich researcher Franz Vollenweider presented this in-depth workshop focusing on the latest advances in scientific understanding of how psychedelic compounds affect the brain.
Dave starts the workshop with some very basic information about receptor pharmacology, then proceeds into how receptors produce signals within cells. His discussion moves on to more complex realms concerning how various psychedelics interact with receptors, including how molecular biology techniques have been used to map out the functional topography of receptors.
After a brief history of psychedelic research in Switzerland, Franz X. Vollenweider reviews the assessments, predictors and neuronal correlates of the basic psychological dimensions of psychedelics in humans, particularly the neuronal processes and networks underpinning the dissolution of self and visionary experiences. In the second part, he summarizes the effect of psychedelics on conscious and unconscious emotion processing and neuronal plasticity and discusses their impact for the treatment of depression and anxiety.
Although these presentations are fairly technical, there is plenty of information for the layperson. The workshop is available for viewing in four parts on YouTube:
• Studies of the molecular effects of psychedelics on gene expression in the brain, as well as their powerful anti-inflammatory properties (Dr. Charles Nichols at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, New Orleans)
• Effects of psilocybin on behavior, psychology, and brain function in long-term meditators (Dr. Roland Griffiths at Johns Hopkins University)
• Qualitative interview study of patient experiences of psilocybin treatment and psycho-educational sessions (Dr. Stephen Ross and Dr. Alex Belser at New York University)
The Heffter Institute is a non-profit organization that was founded by a leading group of brain scientists, and remains the only neuroscience institute dedicated to supporting research with psychedelic substances in order to contribute to a greater understanding of the mind, improvement of the human condition, and the alleviation of suffering.
For more information, please contact: Cibele Ruas, firstname.lastname@example.org.
The classical serotonergic psychedelics LSD, psilocybin, mescaline are not known to cause brain damage and are regarded as non-addictive. Clinical studies do not suggest that psychedelics cause long-term mental health problems. Psychedelics have been used in the Americas for thousands of years. Over 30 million people currently living in the US have used LSD, psilocybin, or mescaline.
To evaluate the association between the lifetime use of psychedelics and current mental health in the adult population.
Data drawn from years 2001 to 2004 of the National Survey on Drug Use and Health consisted of 130,152 respondents, randomly selected to be representative of the adult population in the United States. Standardized screening measures for past year mental health included serious psychological distress (K6 scale), mental health treatment (inpatient, outpatient, medication, needed but did not receive), symptoms of eight psychiatric disorders (panic disorder, major depressive episode, mania, social phobia, general anxiety disorder, agoraphobia, posttraumatic stress disorder, and non-affective psychosis), and seven specific symptoms of non-affective psychosis. We calculated weighted odds ratios by multivariate logistic regression controlling for a range of sociodemographic variables, use of illicit drugs, risk taking behavior, and exposure to traumatic events.
21,967 respondents (13.4% weighted) reported lifetime psychedelic use. There were no significant associations between lifetime use of any psychedelics, lifetime use of specific psychedelics (LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, peyote), or past year use of LSD and increased rate of any of the mental health outcomes. Rather, in several cases psychedelic use was associated with lower rate of mental health problems.
We did not find use of psychedelics to be an independent risk factor for mental health problems.
Citation: Krebs TS, Johansen P-Ø (2013) Psychedelics and Mental Health: A Population Study. PLoS ONE 8(8): e63972. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0063972
How risky are psychedelic drugs to mental health? Not nearly as much as you might have imagined.
People who had taken LSD, psilocybin (the brain-bending chemical in magic mushrooms) or mescaline at any time in their lives were no more likely than those who hadn’t to wind up in mental health treatment or to have symptoms of mental illness, according to an analysis by some Norwegian researchers.
And there was some evidence that people who had taken the drugs at some point were less likely to have had recent mental health treatment.
ST. PAUL, Minn. — To the untrained eye, a certain greenhouse of plants at the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus may seem like nothing special. But Dennis McKenna, an ethno-pharmacologist, sees much more than that.
Some can cure disease, like the Madagascar periwinkle.
“It is the source of two really important drugs to treat childhood leukemia,” McKenna said.
Other plants in the greenhouse are the source of psychedelic drugs that some scientists say could be therapeutic.
McKenna, who teaches at the university’s Center for Spirituality and Healing, is an authority on hallucinogens derived from plants such as ayahuasca, a tea brewed in South America’s Amazon basin and used as part of religious ceremonies.
Research into mind-altering drugs is back. By Zoë Corbyn
You don’t have to spend much time at the six-day second international Psychedelic Science conference in downtown Oakland to learn that not all its 1,900 attendees are academic scientists, and that few are strangers to the power of mind-bending drugs.
Once taboo, psychedelics are making an enlightening medical comeback by Jennifer Bleyer / GSAS ’12
On a spring day in 2010, “Sandra,” then a 63-year-old ice-skating instructor with short graying hair and an impish smile, received her diagnosis: ovarian cancer, stage 1C. The rock-hard tumor growing inside her abdomen was surgically removed almost immediately. She spent the next several months soldiering through exhausting rounds of chemotherapy. Oddly, it was only once she was in remission that the worst began.