Research shows psychedelics can be used in treatment of mental illness

Jul 17, 2020

According to evidence from medical and scientific studies, psychedelic drugs can serve as a promising therapy for treatment of several psychiatric illnesses, including depression, anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

A recent literature review published by the American Journal of Psychiatry evaluated the results of 14 clinical trials that assessed the effectiveness of several hallucinogenic drugs and compounds for treatment of psychiatric disorders. The psychiatric conditions examined in the study included mood and anxiety disorders, substance-related and addictive disorders, as well as trauma and stress-related disorders. In addition, several studies included in the review examined the use of psychedelic treatment in end-of-life care.

The study results have demonstrated that the psychedelic drug 3, 4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), also known as ecstasy, can be effective in treating PTSD. In addition, this review has also shown that the hallucinogenic molecule psilocybin which naturally occurs in some species of mushrooms was effective in treatment of depression and anxiety in cancer patients.

In addition, the study results show that the hallucinogenic drug LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) and ayahuasca, the South American hallucinogenic brew commonly made using the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, could also be effective in treating psychiatric illness. 

The study’s senior author, Dr. William M. McDonald, professor of psychiatry of Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, Georgia, notes that psilocybin treatments could serve as a novel treatment approach for some types of depression. According to the results of the study, the compound was not merely “helping patients get better but actually keeping them well,” he said.

“The thing that’s very impressive to me is that this really has the potential to provide some new treatments using some very novel mechanisms,” said Dr. McDonald, referring to MDMA and psilocybin.

Several of the studies included in the review involved functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine brain activity of participants in response to psychedelics. According to Dr. McDonald, these imaging studies have revealed new findings.

“These compounds have very novel mechanisms of action,” he said. “They are very different mechanisms from some of the antidepressants presently used. This offers a whole new area of research.”

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has previously referred to MDMA as a breakthrough therapy for PTSD in 2017 and to psilocybin as a breakthrough therapy for treatment-resistant depression in 2018, thereby prioritizing these two compounds in the FDA regulatory process.

However, the researchers have also stated that additional research is required for these drugs to become made available for clinical use. “There’s a lot more research that needs to be done. We really don’t understand the abuse potential of these drugs,” Dr. McDonald said in his interview with Medscape Medical News.

“At the same time, with the research we’ve reviewed…there’s real potential here. There really needs to be an effort to accelerate understanding these compounds and understanding their potential,” he said.