Psychedelic Therapy

by Pedro do Amaral Souza


The end of the sixties saw a decline of psychedelics not only as recreational substances but also as object of scientific studies. But as paradigms break down we are seeing them return in the scientific community, which is investigating their therapeutic potential in treating a wide range of disorders.

The first studies with psychedelics were conducted in the fifties when the therapeutic potential of LSD, a psychedelic synthesized by Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman, attracted the attention of scientists and psychologists. Other substances investigated during those were psilocybin and mescaline, naturally occurring psychoactives found in certain species of mushrooms and cactus. At that time, psychedelics were viewed by the scientific community as a possible key to understanding the human mind and the nature of disorders such as autism, schizophrenia and depression.

A prominent figure of this age was Timothy Leary, the Harvard psychologist who conducted a series of studies with LSD and psilocybin. One of such studies is the Concord Prison experiment, which used LSD and psychotherapy to reduce the rate of recidivism (the tendency to repeat undesirable behavior) in inmates. Another study conducted by Leary is the Marsh Chapel experiment, which investigated the potential of psilocybin in producing mystical experiences. Besides Leary, other researchers at the time studied the potential of psychedelics in treating alcoholism and alleviating anxiety in patients with terminal disease.

Despite the promising results of these studies, the government’s concern with psychedelics increased due to a boom in recreational use amongst the youth. Throughout the sixties, a series of restrictions were placed on them, which made research harder. These restrictions culminated with the Controlled Substances Act in 1970, which put psychedelics under the same class of drugs such as Heroin, blocking further research.

Even with these restrictions small studies were still conducted as researchers found loopholes in these laws over time. In 1990, researcher Rick Doblin funded the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) with the purpose of educating the public and ushering a comeback of the studies. That comeback came in 1993, when the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the FDA approved studies with psychedelics as long as they are government-authorized.

This approval marked the beginning of a new era for psychedelic research, investigating the therapeutical value of many substances. The studies with the greatest repercussion were the ones conducted with marijuana, which found in it potential to treat a myriad of conditions that range from Glaucoma to lack of appetite and insomnia in cancer patients. The result of these studies opened the gates for medical marijuana, which is fast expanding throughout the world.

But many other substances have been studied in the last two decades, with fascinating results. A good example is the experiment conducted by John Hopkins University in 2006 to investigate the effect of psilocybin-induced mystical experiences on test subjects. The results indicate that a single dose of psilocybin on a clinical setting can produce long-term personality changes such as reduced depression and anxiety as well as increased spirituality and a more positive outlook on life. Another study on psilocybin done by the UCLA (University of California in Los Angeles)  with cancer patients found a reduction of depression and anxiety in all volunteers.

Another substance that is the subject of many studies is MDMA, popularly known as ecstasy. Most studies have focused on its potential to treat PSTD (post-traumatic stress disorder), due to its ability of producing a state of openness that facilitates therapy. But recently MAPS has obtained approval from the FDA to study its potential in socially integrating people with autism.

Apart from the mentioned substances, drugs such as Ketamine, Ibogaine and DMT among others have shown promise in treating many conditions, and as these studies yield results the amount of research in the area is increasing.

Despite this new boom in psychedelic research, there are many restrictions still in place, which in the words of British psychiatrist David Nutt are “the worst censorship since the Catholic Church banned the works of Copernicus and Galileo”.

But these restrictions are being taken away as more studies are published. And this process is happening with a professional and scientific discourse that contrasts the utopian liberalism of Timothy Leary.

What will come next only time will tell, but some researchers such as Doblin believe that in the next decades we will see large scale use of psychedelics in treating a myriad of conditions, resulting in advances in medicine and psychology.


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