Friday, February 25, 2005

A Psychedelic Revival

Early Clinical Trial of DMT Posted by Hello

It used to be said: "what goes around comes around," or maybe it's "deja vu all over again." Whatever works best for announcing that LSD, MDMA, psilocybin, DMT, and ayahuasca have been approved for new clinical trials. Only this time there won't be a Timothy Leary-like "turn on, tune in, drop out" guru to tout the "trip" of these psychedelics, or call them the hotline to spiritual enlightenment. These clinical trials are being undertaken in an attempt to find relief for people who are drug abusers, alcoholics, cluster headache sufferers, and cancer patients facing death.

It is widely known that by the late 1960s psychedelics had been outlawed in the US, Canada, and Europe. Few people know that in the mid-1960s, more than 1000 peer-reviewed papers had been published describing the treatment of more than 40,000 patients for schizophrenia, depression, alcoholism and other disorders using psychedelic interventions. Now after more than 30 years, new scientific efforts are being spearheaded by people like John Halpern of Harvard, Rick Doblin of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) in Sarasota, Florida, psychiatrist Charles Grob at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, psychiatrist Francisco Moreno of the University of Arizona, Tucson and physician Michael Mithoefer of Charleston, South Carolina to revive research into psychedelic medicine.

Halpern, an associate director of substance abuse research at Harvard University's McLean Hospital recently received approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to give late-stage cancer patients the psychedelic drug MDMA, also known as ecstasy. He is also laying the groundwork for testing LSD as a treatment for dreaded super-migraines known as cluster headaches, as well as having completed research into the safety of repeated peyote use among the members of the Native American Church.

Doblin, who wrote his dissertation at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government on the federal regulation of psychedelics, is working to get psychedelics legally recognized as medicines. But he also hopes that someday healthy people may take these substances for psychological or spiritual purposes. A practice most Americans are familiar with, "as Prozac and Viagra are already prescribed not just to heal the ill, but to enhance the lives of the healthy." (The Dharma Bums are inclined to give a thumbs-down on this comparison, as it casts psychedelics in the wrong light.)

Since 2001, psychiatrist Francisco Moreno has been testing psilocybin as a treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder. Psychotherapy and antidepressants such as Prozac help many patients, but some have such severe symptoms and are so resistant to treatment that they turn to electroshock therapy and even brain surgery. As with the work on cluster headaches, Moreno's study was motivated by reports from people with OCD that psilocybin relieves their symptoms. So far, Moreno has given both sub-psychedelic and psychedelic doses of pure psilocybin to nine treatment-resistant OCD subjects, in a total of 29 therapy sessions. His preliminary findings suggest firstly that it is safe to ingest psilocybin, which was a primary concern of the trial. Beyond that, Moreno calls his results "promising", but won't discuss them further, since he plans to submit a paper to a peer-reviewed journal this year.

After years struggling to get permits, Charles Grob says he is slowly moving forward with a study into using psilocybin to reduce distress in terminal cancer patients. He points out that studies done in the 1960s suggested that psychedelics can help patients come to terms with their impending death. So far Grob has treated three patients, but he hopes to enroll more subjects shortly.

In Charleston, South Carolina, physician Mithoefer is carrying out a MAPS-sponsored clinical trial of MDMA as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD affects up to 20 per cent of people who experience a traumatic event, and involves distressing symptoms such as nightmares and panic attacks. Conventional treatments typically consist of cognitive therapy and antidepressants, but many patients don't respond to these. In the past year Mithoefer has given "MDMA-assisted" psychotherapy to six treatment-resistant patients, all traumatised by violent crimes; he plans to treat 20 patients in all.

Halpern says of this new resurgence in psychedelic clinical trials, "This gives us the chance to show that we have learned our lessons," because he is anxious to lay to rest the ghost of Leary. "That man screwed it up for so many people." Maybe, just maybe, after more than 30 years in the wilderness, this powerful, misunderstood but potentially mind-healing class of drugs is ready to be rehabilitated.

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