Is Psychedelic Therapy the Future?

Robin Carhart-Harris is a neuropsychopharmacologist (or a ‘scientist’
if you want to be more general) who works at Imperial College London.
In the past he worked under David Nutt, the former chairman of the
Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Nutt was fired for being a
bit nutty (in the eyes of the government anyway) by claiming that
ecstasy and magic mushrooms were less harmful than horse-riding and
alcohol. To anyone who watched the two-part programme Drugs Live
on Channel 4, Carhart-Harris was one of the scientists involved in
administering MDMA, in a clinical setting, to a priest and Keith
Allen. The programme helped to promote the evidence that MDMA could
be useful in helping PTSD sufferers face their trauma with an
anxiety-free attitude, eventually being able to overcome it.

the near future Cahart-Harris will be carrying out two new exciting
experimental studies. One is with psilocybin, the psychoactive
ingredient in magic mushrooms; the second is on LSD. Both will make
use of brain imaging techniques. The LSD study will be
ground-breaking because we will be able to see which different brain
regions are affected under the influence of the drug, where blood
flow and activity is most prominent, for example.

has said that he first became interested in psychedelic therapy and
transpersonal psychology after having read Stan Grof’s Realms
of the Human Unconscious
(1975). Grof’s work detailed his human
experiments in LSD sessions and how his research related to the human
unconscious, the processes in our minds that happen beneath
our conscious awareness. Grof also found that LSD could induce
experiences which features archetypes (in Jungian terms, these
are universal human symbols, such as ‘the wise old man’), a
dissolution of the ego and a deeper sense of connection to others and
the Universe.

is in many ways following in the footsteps of Grof. He wants to first
of all study psychedelics as a way to gain a better understanding of
the mind. Carhart-Harris’ previous studies with psilocybin,
for example, along with Professor Nutt’s, has shown that this
chemical actually reduces the blood-flow between communication
centres in the brain. This seems to go against the idea that
psychedelics generate more activity in the brain. Furthermore, it was
found that the most intense and more mystical experiences with the
chemical were due to a greater reduction in blood-flow in certain
areas of the brain.

experimental evidence seems to vindicate Aldous Huxley’s hypothesis
in The Doors of Perception (1954) that the mind acts a reducing
, which works to limit the amount of information which can
be accessed by our conscious mind. The mind probably does this so
that it’s no overloaded with information, especially information
which is irrelevant when it comes to our biological survival and
reproduction. Our waking consciousness needs to be narrow enough so that it can focus on every day needs. What drugs like LSD and magic mushrooms appear to do is
inhibit the brain regions (such as the medial prefrontal cortex)
which reduce the amount of information reaching our awareness. Therefore, the reason that psychedelic effects take place is because these drugs can inhibit the brain’s natural ‘filtering’ mechanism.

psilocybin research has yielded some important insights into
how the mind works. For example, the medial prefrontal cortex is
known to be over-active in patients suffering from depression, so if
psychedelic drugs can dampen the activity in this brain region, then
it could potentially give these patients long-lasting relief, if they
are able to integrate the experience. Psychedelic research definitely
seems then to reveal a lot about how the mind works and gives us a
basis for using these drugs in a practical and beneficial way. Many
other studies suggest that psychedelic drugs could be helpful in
treating clustering headaches (psilocybin) and addiction. In
the case of addiction, LSD has proved to be useful, but in more
serious cases of heroin addiction, the plant Iboga has proved
to be very effective. After a session with this psychedelic plant,
heroin users do not gradually come off heroin, they stop immediately.
Ayahuasca retreats are now becoming more common among
Westerners who are seeking to use this medicinal brew from the Amazon
to increase their mental well-being.

more psychedelic research therapy being carried out, especially since
organisations like MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for
Psychedelic Studies) are receiving more funding, it will be
interesting to see if psychedelic therapy gains momentum. It could be
the case that in the future a patient will not have to visit a
psychotherapist for years, with little signs of progress. Instead,
they might go through a few sessions with a certain psychedelic drug
(depending on the illness) and make just as much progress, if not
completely recover. Some research with MDMA and LSD has involved
patients being in a comfortable room, with calming music, whilst being
guided by a therapist close by. This could be the future of therapy.


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