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Tuesday
Dec152015

An open mind for improving human health

‘Astounding’ is how I would describe the results presented by Dr. Roland Griffiths (a 40+ year veteran researcher at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine) at the closing sessions of the 54th annual meeting of the American College of Neuropsycho-pharmacology.  Dr. Griffith and his colleagues shared study results that after a single treatment with the study drug, the severely depressed mood of terminally-ill cancer patients had been dramatically improved (and I would wager this as an understatement). Their perspective on life had been powerfully changed for the better and was evidenced not only on the way the patients felt about themselves but also from the feedback of members of the patients’ individual communities – the patients seemed much happier and more at peace to family, loved-ones, co-workers and community.  Even more incredible was that these positive changes were not only profound in magnitude, but remained very strong, even 6 MONTHS after treatment.  The effects seemed a bit like magic; the test drug was psilocybin – ‘magic mushrooms’.

Dr. Griffiths' landmark paper in 2006 remains a watershed in modern psilocybin research (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16826400) and caused a resurgence of interest in the compound as a pharmacological tool that could be safely investigated in humans after a decades-long lag in research. The 2006 report, through a careful scientific approach, provided some of the best-controlled evidence for the positive and lasting effects of psilocybin in healthy volunteers. Highlights can be seen in his 2009 TEDxMidAtlantic talk, currently posted on YouTube.

Where had psilocybin gone? After widespread, and arguably fallible research (poor study design) in the 1950s and 1960s on then-legal psilocybin, concern of substance abuse as a street drug led to classification as a Schedule I drug in the US (high abuse potential with no accepted medical use). Psilocybin is a naturally occurring psychoactive compound produced by more than 200 types of mushrooms. Considered an ‘entheogen,’ it has been used for centuries in religious ceremonies to “generate the divine within” however its illegal status relegated it as an underground psychoactive drug, known also as ‘mushrooms’ or ‘shrooms’. 

Where has the anxiety gone? Whereas subjects in Dr. Griffiths studies emerged from treatment with a deeply positive recalibration of life’s meaning, a lead question during last week’s ACNP session was in the apparent absence of experiences occasioned by the lay user which are highly variable and dominated by feelings of intense panic and fear.  Here a key feature of Dr. Griffiths’ studies - ‘supportive conditions’  - are highly important and being with several visits between test subjects and study staff prior to psilocybin administration to develop trust and rapport. During the 8-hour psilocybin treatment session, study staff were present as ‘guides’ to reassure subjects and navigate darker experiences with greater confidence and a philosophy of discovery. 

Modern neuroscience has a close eye on this ancient drug, and beyond subjective mood testing, research led by Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris (Imperial College London) is using functional magnetic resonance imaging to better understand how brain activation patterns are modulated by psilocybin (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22308440). In addition to the growing evidence from studies by Dr. Griffiths and similar trials at New York University (see a great article in the New Yorker from Feb. 2015; http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/02/09/trip-treatment), the in vivo imaging results provide compelling evidence that under controlled conditions, psilocybin is safe and highly effective in improving the well-being patients in need. This is a fascinating example of science to me and I am excited to see how psilocybin’s status as an illegal drug with ‘no accepted medical use’ will change when the benefit to patients seems so clear.

 

-FAS

Photo credit: RollingStone.com

Media links:

1.  Griffiths, et al, 2006 Psychopharmacology (Berlin) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16826400.

2.  Griffiths, 2009 TED talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LKm_mnbN9JY.

3.  Carhart-Harris, et al, 2012 PNAS (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22308440)

4. Feb. 2015 New Yorker article: (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/02/09/trip-treatment

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