From the 1940s to the early 1970s, psychedelic drug research had a heyday, where tens of thousands of people participated in trials exploring multiple basic research questions and therapeutic indications. Then, because of the drugs’ association with counterculture and street use, the work fell out of favor.
“It’s really unprecedented in pharmacology, and probably throughout science, that you would have an entire research agenda that looked this promising be put on hold for decades,” says psychiatry researcher Matthew Johnson. Slowly, over time, such studies began again. Johnson and colleague Roland Griffiths have been evaluating drugs, including psilocybin—a hallucinogenic substance obtained from certain mushrooms—for more than 13 years.
“There are an incredible number of questions that need to be explored,” says Johnson. “These substances tinker with the serotonin system and interact with it in a unique way. What we’re understanding now is that regardless of receptor-level pharmacology, the really interesting changes that occur with these compounds are in brain network dynamics—the way different areas of the brain communicate with each other.”
Work published last December in the Journal of Psychopharmacology demonstrated that a high dose of psilocybin could produce large, sustained decreases in depression and anxiety among cancer patients with life-threatening diagnoses and clinically significant depression and/or anxiety. Another small study published in the January issue of The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse found that psilocybin, when administered with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for smoking cessation, resulted in substantially higher six-month smoking abstinence rates than are typically achieved through other medications or CBT alone. About 87 percent of participants rated their psilocybin experiences among the five most personally meaningful and spiritually significant experiences of their lives.
When administered in carefully controlled settings, says Johnson, psilocybin’s effects are often akin to “mystical experiences” that people who are deeply religious or practice meditation report—timelessness, a sense of self dissolved to a larger whole and an overall feeling of positivity. What’s more, he adds, “there may be changes in brain network patterns that persist beyond the acute effect, almost like the acute effects may be inducing plasticity and flexibility.”
Additional studies being planned at Johns Hopkins will explore psilocybin’s effects on depression unrelated to cancer and how meditative states compare with psychedelic ones. Meanwhile, researchers at fellow institutions have found that psilocybin may effect change in areas as varied as inflammatory disease, addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
These studies could offer insight into underlying likenesses among these maladies, Johnson says. While depression and addiction currently are considered different disorders, “there might be more in common than we normally realize,” he says. “I think psychedelics are going to be a powerful tool to address those questions.”