Psychedelics have long been seen as little more than recreational substances that can alter perception and mood, but they are now being given a more thorough examination by scientists and researchers.
Johns Hopkins is one of the leading institutions in this regard, and the university has opened a new Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research.
What Are Psychedelics?
Psychedelics, also called hallucinogens, are part of a class of psychoactive substances that change a person’s perception, mood and cognitive function. When a person takes a psychedelic substance, their senses are altered in one way or another.
A person under the influence of such substances may think differently, perceive time uniquely and display emotions that would not come to the fore when sober.
Psychedelics are also known for producing hallucinations, where a person sees or hears things that are not present. Some people may hear or see distorted versions of the reality that is in front of them.
There are both natural and synthetic psychedelics. Natural hallucinogens include those that occur in trees, seeds, fungi and leaves.
Examples of psychedelics include:
- LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide) – made from a fungus called ergot which infects rye.
- Psilocybin, DMT, and other magic mushrooms – naturally occurring in specific mushrooms around the world
- Mescaline – made from specific peyote and cactus.
- LSA, or morning glory seeds – come from flowering morning glory vines.
- Ayahuasca – a tea made from the leaves of the Psychotria viridis shrub and parts of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine.
Some of these psychedelics are more well-known than others. Most people are aware of LSD and mushrooms. But people often ask, what is LSA, as some psychedelics are less mainstream and may not even be on controlled substances lists.
The Use of Psychedelics
The use of psychedelics has long centered on recreational use, with people using drugs such as MDMA, LSD and mescaline to get high. Some people may use psychedelic drugs at parties, while others consume psychedelic substances in the comfort of their home.
Some psychedelics are illegal for recreational use such as MDMA and LSD, while others have no legal status. Salvia Divinorum, which is an hallucinogenic herb, is not illegal per federal law in the United States.
The impact of a single dose of a psychedelic can vary based on the person and their environment. Someone who takes MDMA for the first time at a party may have a different reaction, compared to a person who consumes a smaller dose when they are with one or two friends at home.
Psychedelic science, such as the research being done at Johns Hopkins University, is focusing on assessing the impact of a single dose or multiple doses of psychedelics on individuals who may be suffering from emotional or mental health problems.
How Psychedelics Impact the Mind and Body
Psychedelics, or entheogens, can promote life altering experiences, profound insights, hallucinations and other impacts on the mind and body. These substances temporarily increase blood pressure, heart rate, body temperature and specific hormones.
Some people who take psychedelics may experience an increase in anxiety, which is why experienced users of these substances try to ensure they are in the proper setting when taking a small dose.
People who take psychedelics often mention how their perceptions are altered, as they begin to see complex images or fractal patterns in the spare around them. A person who is high on a psychedelic may also be more open towards others, as they become more trusting and friendly.
Another significant result from consuming these entheogens is that a person can feel they are closer to the divine. Many people report how they felt a sense of connectedness with nature and everything around them. Some people may feel a loss of ego and profound emotions.
One of the pioneers of LSD research, Daniel Freedman, mentioned how people who consumed the substance were able to see more than they could explain, and believe in more than they could justify rationally.
Therapeutic Benefits of Psychedelics
A significant portion of psychedelic research focuses on the positive effects of these substances. Psychedelics can impact a person who is suffering from physical, mental or emotional issues, or has experienced significant trauma in their life.
One of the catalysts for pushing scientists to study the possible therapeutic effects of psychedelics is the increased understanding of the long-term effects of the psychedelic experience. Most people assume that a psychedelic has a one-time impact on a person’s mind, and when the small dose wears off, they return back to their normal selves.
A recent study in the Human Psychopharmacology journal showed that psychedelic experiences may deliver lasting improvements in a person’s mental outlook, attitude or perception.
People who are experiencing anxiety, depression or addiction may be able to see the world and their life through a new lens. They are better equipped to handle issues they are experiencing in their lives, at work or in interpersonal relationships.
These revelations are part of the reason why psychedelic research and psychedelic therapy have tried to assess how an entheogen can result in smoking cessation, relief from major depression, or a cure for long-term anxiety.
Treating Health Conditions with Psychedelics
A NIH study from 2016 showed how psychedelics are psychologically safe. The study also concluded there was no evidence that using psychedelics as part of treatment for various health conditions results in any dependency on the substance. There is also no evidence that use of psychedelics in such a controlled setting can lead to psychosis.
These psychedelic substances may be the key to treating conditions that do not always respond to conventional medicine including:
- Alzheimer’s Disease
- Heavy Alcohol Use & Addiction
- Major Depressive Disorder
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
- Tobacco Addiction
Psychedelic Research and Case Studies
Research into psychedelics first began in the 1950s and 1960s, with doctors assessing whether LSD and psilocybin were useful in treating alcoholism and other ailments. Those studies never gained much traction, as the substances began to develop dangerous reputations due to their recreational use among the younger population.
Laws were made banning the use of psychedelics in 1966 and subsequent years. LSD was outlawed in the United States in 1968, and the Controlled Substances Act passed in 1970. The bill meant the drugs were not only banned for recreational use, but medical studies as well.
The Johns Hopkins University Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research is the most serious and well-funded foray into psychedelic research. Scientists and researchers at the university are assessing whether psilocybin and other psychedelics are useful in treating conditions that include anorexia, Alzheimer’s and smoking addiction.
One of the issues in getting people to take psychedelics seriously is that some studies suggest they could help with such a wide range of ailments. Hailing a single substance as being able to help patients fight diseases as wide ranging as anorexia and Alzheimer’s can make a lot of people skeptical.
New Wave of Psychedelic Research
Roland Griffiths, Ph.D., is the man in charge of the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research. He has taken the lead in some of the most promising clinical research studies regarding the use of psychedelics to treat treatment-resistant depression and alcoholism, along with other conditions.
Griffiths is one of the people responsible for helping to revive psychedelics research, as he has been working in the field since the 2000s. He first received government approval in the mid-2000s to give high doses of psilocybin to healthy volunteers for the study.
Results from that study came out in 2006 and showed the effects of psilocybin from a single dose were safe for patients, and could cause significant positive reactions in the body.
A second study took place in 2016, where patients were given the same substance to see if it could improve their depression and anxiety during cancer treatment. The double blind study showed that cancer patients who took psilocybin had significantly less anxiety and depression during their treatment, as opposed to people who took the placebo.
What fascinated researchers from that study is how 80 percent of those patients were still less clinically depressed and anxious six months later, as compared to their state of mind before the treatment. Many of them talked about how they no longer feared death, which showed the effects of psychedelics could be long term, even if they were only administered for a short time.
More studies are necessary to prove the findings were not a fluke, but such clinical research indicates the possibility of a psychedelic substance being used as an antidepressant. Even the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted regulatory approval to psilocybin for the treatment of major depressive disorder.
Psilocybin and Depression
The next step for Griffiths and other researchers was to further assess the effects of psilocybin on depression. A new study was published in JAMA Psychiatry by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, which details the positive impact of the “magic mushroom” on patients who are suffering from major depression.
The new study did not focus on people with a cancer diagnosis or some life threatening disease. Researchers found 24 people who had a long term and well-documented history of depression.
These were individuals who had experienced symptoms for at least two years before enrolling in the study. The average age of the group was 39, with around 16 of the 24 being women. Most of the participants were white, with one Asian and one African American.
All participants weaned themselves off the antidepressants they had been taking with the help of a physician and then joined the study. The treatment involved two psilocybin doses given by clinical monitors over a two week period.
Each session was around five hours, with the participant lying on a couch in a similar manner to the first study. Among the 24 participants, 67% of them showed roughly 50% or greater reduction in depression symptoms after one week, and a 71% reduction after four weeks.
Roughly 54% of the people in the study were eventually considered in remission, which meant they no longer were classified as depressed. The long term impact of the experiment on the patients is unclear, but the researchers from Johns Hopkins are following up with each of the participants and will report more findings in the coming months.
Psychedelics and Tobacco Addiction
Tobacco addiction is another possible condition psychedelics could cure. Researcher Matthew Johnson led a pilot study on the matter in 2014. His study focused on psilocybin and whether the substance could help people quit smoking.
The open-label study involved patients lying on a couch, wearing eyeshades and listening to music. Johnson and his colleagues would work with patients for several weeks on cognitive-behavioral therapy, which is talk therapy that attempts to change a person’s patterns of thinking.
They would attempt the therapy before and after the use of psilocybin. Patients received the drug for up to three sessions, with the first coming on the target quit date, two weeks later, and finally a third dose eight weeks later.
Patients were assessed for up to ten weeks using urine and breath tests to determine if they had been smoking. When six months passed, the study showed that 80 percent of smokers had quit smoking for at least one week. That is a much higher success rate than similar studies that did not involve psilocybin, where the success rate was closer to 35 percent.
Roughly 67 percent of the patients from the clinical trials were cigarette free 12 months later and roughly 60 percent did not smoke 16 months later.
There is a second, follow-up study still taking place where 80 people are being given randomized patches of either psilocybin or nicotine at Johns Hopkins University. Results from the study should be available in the coming years.
Reasons for Psychedelics Impacting the Brain Remain Unclear
The psychedelic studies completed by scientists at Johns Hopkins University and other institutions show that psychedelics have a significant impact on brain function. Many experts are still not certain why psychedelic therapy is so effective.
Scientists do believe psilocybin and other psychedelics can alter the way the brain networks communicate, which may provide a person with more control on the reward system that results in so many of the decisions we make.
Neuroscience experts such as Frederick Barrett are now investigating how psychedelics impact the brain. They are using functional magnetic response imaging to measure a person’s brain activity before and after they go through the therapy.
Serotonin and Psychedelics
Research from scientists at UNC-Chapel Hill and Stanford may further help understand how psychedelics impact the brain. Scientists showed how psychedelic compounds bond to the 5-HT2A serotonin receptor on the surface of a person’s brain cells.
Some experts believe such a discovery could lead to the creation of synthetic compounds that all but eliminate the hallucinations that psychedelics cause, while retaining the therapeutic effects.
Psychedelic substances appear to have an impact on the temporal lobe when consumed. That is the part of the brain where much of the emotional and memory functioning takes place.
Neuroscientists describe a person’s brain as being “higher in entropy” when they consume a psychedelic. That can result in less activation of brain structures that are called the “default mode network”, which is what causes us to be self-conscious or have self-focused thoughts.
Scientists believe such a process may be a reason why people feel a sense of oneness with the world when they experience taking a psychedelic. The brain has greater entropy, while its ego-sustaining activities are lower.
The Treatment of the Future
The moral panic around psychedelics appears to have been left in the past. While these substances are not legal for recreational consumption, the fear around taking MDMA, LSD, magic mushrooms or similar substances is not on the same levels as the 1950s and 1960s.
Federal agencies such as the FDA are also allowing the use of specific psychedelics for clinical trials, which has greatly increased the chances of scientists understanding how helpful these substances could be for various treatments.
Conditions such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, alcohol and tobacco addiction, Alzheimer’s and others do not have conventional cures. Scientists and doctors are always on the lookout for new treatments, especially if they have little to no side effects.
While psychedelics are far from being miracle substances that can cure any disease, they may have a lot more potential than we realize. If scientists can continue their research to the point of creating psychedelics that cause minimal hallucinations, but still produce therapeutic results, they may change the way many conditions are currently treated.
Doctors will, for now, continue to await the results of the many clinical trials and research studies being completed at Johns Hopkins University and other elite institutions on psychedelics and their therapeutic properties.