Research News: Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy

By Lauren DeSouza- Master of Public Health, Simon Fraser Public Research University – Canada​

Staff Research and Content Writer
© Copyright – SUD RECOVERY CENTERS – A Division of Genesis Behavioral Services, Inc.,
Milwaukee, Wisconsin – July 2021 – All rights reserved.

Please note: While the substances discussed in this article show potential benefits for the treatment of the mental health disorders in clinical settings, they are dangerous to use without the supervision of a health care provider. They have not been approved for use outside of research studies and should not be consumed recreationally. The putpose of this article is to inform and educate our stakeholders about the latest thinking regarding mental health and SUDs. This article does not endorse use of these substances and does not discuss any therapies that are currently in use at  SUD RECOVERY CENTERS.

Psychedelics, also known as hallucinogens, are a class of psychoactive substances that have potential to be used as treatments for a variety of mental health disorders.

Commonly-known psychedelics include lysergic acid diethyl-amide (LSD), 3,4-
methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), ayahuasca, and psilocybin, the compound found in magic mushrooms.

Researchers began studying the possible applications of psychedelics for mental health disorders in the mid-20th century, But this research was halted with the passing of the Controlled Substances Act in the early 1970s. Now, the field of psychedelic-assisted therapy for mental health disorders is once again gaining momentum. Teo substances, MDMA and psilocybin, have been granted a special exemption from the controlled Substances Act because they show promise for effectively treating mental health disorders. In order to get this exemption, the substance must have shown potential to offer substantial benefits over existing treatment options.

When combined with psychotherapy,

• MDMA has shown potential for treating post-traumatic stress disorder; and,
• Psilocybin has shown potential as a treatment for major depressive disorder (MDD).

Background of Psychedelic- Assisted Therapy
Psychedelics are a diverse class of substances that interact with chemicals in the brain to alter one’s perceptions of thoughts, feelings, and memories.

Some psychedelics, including LSD and MDMA, are synthesized in a lab; others including ayahuasca and psilocybin are naturally occurring and found in plants and fungi. These naturally occurring psychedelics are considered sacred medicines in many cultures in Latin America and Asia and have been used for physical and emotional healing and spiritual connection.

Psychedelics first gained popularity in the US in the mid-1950s with the use of LSD totreat conditions including alcohol use disorder, depression, and anxiety. However, when psychedelics gained popularity in the US as recreational drugs, the federal government banned them due to health risks. Some recreational users stated that they became aggressive while using these substances and/or became a risk to themselves or to others. The side effects that were seen recreationally were not seen in clinical settings, but when the substances were banned, they could no longer be used in research.

The burden of mental health disorders in the US has persisted, and researchers have begun studying the potential use of psychedelics again in the hope of finding treatment options that are more effective and have fewer side effects than the current options.

How can psychedelics be used to treat mental health?

The psychedelic experience may have healing benefits for mental health. Researchersbelieve that it allows patients to scan their lives from an outsider’s view and examine their thoughts, feelings, and memories with a different perspective. This can help them to explore traumatic experiences from a detached state, gain new insights into past events, and develop new ways of thinking about and experiencing emotions.

Psilocybin has been studied as an adjunct treatment for tobacco cessation, alcohol dependence, and anxiety and depression induced by critical illness. Psilocybin affects serotonin levels in the brain, similar to antidepressants, but it also impacts thought processes. It produces visual and auditory hallucinations and can lead to introspection, which, in combination with therapy, can help patients get to the root cause of why they feel depressed and detach themselves from that feeling.

Psilocybin is currently undergoing clinical trials for use in treating treatment- resistant and illness-induced depression

Potential benefit: Research has shown psilocybin to have antidepressant benefits lasting for over 3 months for many patients.

Potential side effects: So far, side effects from psilocybin have been mild and short-lasting. These include mild anxiety during dosing, nausea, headaches, and confusion.

MDMA has been studied for many years as a potential treatment for PTSD. MDMA is considered to have empathy-enhancing effects, which result from the release of various chemicals in the brain including serotonin, dopamine, prolactin, and oxytocin. It is thought to enable patients to better tolerate their traumatic memories and be able to examine them in therapy.

Potential benefit: Patients in clinical trials indicated that MDMA was effective in alleviating their PTSD symptoms for an average of 3.75 years following treatment.

Potential side effects: Similar to psilocybin, the side effects of clinical use of MDMA were mild and short-lasting, including anxiety, fatigue, headache, bruxism, and loss of appetite.

How does treatment work?

Clinical studies of MDMA and psilocybin administer the substances in combination with psychotherapy before and after the dosing session.

Patients first meet with their therapist to prepare for the psychedelic experience over one or multiple sessions. The dosing session involves giving the patient an oral dose of the substance and then supervising the patient throughout the experience. The therapists keep the patient comfortable, and the patient can talk to them if desired. They can also tune out and travel inward, using eyeshades and music to aid them throughout the experience. The
effects of the substance typically last between 12-24 hours. Following the dosing session, the there is another psychotherapy session to help the patient integrate their psychedelic experience and gain maximum treatment benefit.

Key Takeaways:
– Psychedelics have gained popularity in recent years for their potential to treat mental health disorders such as depression and post-traumatic stress         disorder.
– When combined with psychotherapy, these substances may be able to help alleviate symptoms and challenges associated with mental health                     disorders.
– Researchers are still studying the use of psychedelics as a treatment, and they are not approved for recreational use.

Penn, A., Dorsen, C.G., Hope, S., and Rosa, W. (2021). Psychadelic- Assisted Therapy:Emerging treatments in mental health disorders. American Journal of Nursing 121 (6):34-40.

Davis, N. (2021). “Magic mushrooms show promise in treatment for depression, study says.” The Guardian. Published April 14, 2021.