Mental illness is more widespread in today’s modern society than it has ever been before. Yet as mental illness runs rampant, we seem to be no closer to discovering the links between what’s happening in the brain and the actual conditions with which patients are labeled. In addition, modern medicine has been unable to reliably cure or alleviate common symptoms.
Tom Insel, Director of the US National Institute of Mental Health, spent the latter part of his career openly criticizing psychiatry for its failure to assist those with mental illnesses. Insel recognized that certain areas of modern medicine were showing vast improvement and innovation, however, “not so much for patients with schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or depression.” Nevertheless, drugs that have been illegal for decades, known as psychedelics, are starting to prove otherwise. Today scientists are studying how these drugs are able to reprogram the human brain. This type of work could potentially change the way that mental illnesses are treated.
Are Psychedelic Drugs That Crazy?
Back in the 1950s and 1960s, around 40,000 mental patients were given lysergic acid diethylamide, also known as acid or LSD, in order to treat conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and addiction. When these drugs were banned in Northern America as well as Europe in the 1970s, scientific research stopped. In order for doctors to continue to treat their patients, those suffering from common mental illnesses such as depression, were given selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, more commonly referred to as SSRIs.
SSRIs functioned in such a way that they boosted the level of serotonin, a contributor to feelings of well-being and happiness, by disallowing its reabsorption by neurons. This led many to believe that depression was caused by a lack of serotonin. However, SSRIs only work for about one in five people with depression and the drugs also come with severe side effects, some of which can prove fatal.
Around the turn of the century, the push for psychedelic drugs to be legalized for use in scientific studies was finally allowed. Now with almost two decades of research and studies, we are entering a sort of Psychedelic Renaissance period.
PTSD Patients Treated by Ecstasy…
From war veterans to survivors of sexual assault, PTSD affects just under 10% of the population within the US alone. Ecstasy, a widely known party drug, functions by filling the brain with serotonin making the user feel happy and euphoric. Though it is not considered a strong psychedelic because it doesn’t cause the user to have hallucinations, it has been found to help alter the mood of patients with PTSD.
So far one of the more effective treatments for PTSD has involved something called memory reconsolidation. This is when the patient is walked through the events that caused their PTSD and coached to retrain their brain to process memories in a different way through therapy. Ecstasy also helps with this process because it releases a hormone that allows the patient to feel more trusting in social situations, i.e. during therapy sessions. Recently a group of scientists from California conducted a study which showed that around 67% of the patients with PTSD who were treated with ecstasy, were cured of their anxiety symptoms and nightmares.
Opening the Door for More Studies
These successful studies are opening the door for other drugs to be tested. The real interest here is with true psychedelics which cause hallucinations in the user. Scientists believe that these drugs could prove to be long-term, successful treatments for depression.
Their beliefs are not completely unfounded. In 2006, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, proved in a double-blind study that a chemical commonly found in magic mushrooms invoked a sense of revelation within its subjects. The psychiatrist, Roland Griffiths, determined that the chemical, psilocybin, helped improve patients’ overall satisfaction with life, and general well-being. It was as though the drugs were handing patients’ brains as needed tools in order to trigger a reset.
Medicine for the Most Stubborn Brains
While Griffiths continued to conduct more studies with high success rates and long-term benefits, another neuroscientist named Robin Carhart-Harris, began treating depressed patients that had previously resisted available treatments. With single doses of psilocybin and psychological support, Carhart-Harris was able to read patients of their depression for as long as three months. This further proved Insel’s initial research stating that psychedelic drugs could heal with long-term effects.
The reasons why these drugs are so effective are still under speculation. Carhart-Harris has been scanning patients’ brains by way of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in order to deduce which brain activities are occurring while the subjects are under the influence of psychedelic drugs. It seems that separate sections of the brain that are normally working separately from one another begin to work together. This connectivity also helps fade or erase the ego. In short, it stops the downward spiral of negative thinking that many who are suffering from depression and anxiety experience.
Neuroscience in the Days to Come
Further studies suggest that psychedelic drugs can change the way we process emotions. In a way, this can help patients reconnect with their emotions as opposed to being apathetic. Though many of the studies have been with small control groups, scientists still understand the need to use caution. However, many are marching forward with the hopes that a profound discovery is on the horizon. According to Insel, “it’s not just about the chemical but the role the chemical can have in a psychotherapeutic experience.” He also went on to say, “I’m excited to think that there might be compounds that could be used in a new way to give us something that will make a difference for people who haven’t received much assistance from the drugs we have.”
In the long run, more research and studies are needed. Scientists across Europe and North America are continuing placebo-controlled trials. One catch that many organizations are running into is just how expensive it is to develop drugs. The main caveat is to not let potentially groundbreaking ideas take off in a blur of excessive enthusiasm. If researchers can remain patient and stay on course, we may finally reach victory against the battle with mental illness.