From Vices to Virtues: The Rise of Psychoactive Drugs in Neuropsychopharmacology
By Toby Lanser
Seven years ago, Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize the recreational consumption and cultivation of cannabis. This opened the floodgates, and a steady flow of states have passed similar laws in years following. The act sparked public debate regarding the social, economical, and public health ramifications surrounding the consumption of an under-studied psychoactive substance. And though the debate on the federal legalization of cannabis continues, the public has also turned their attention to substances some have considered even more dangerous: psychedelics.
In May 2019, the city of Denver, Colorado passed a city ordinance by razor-thin margins to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms, aka “magic mushrooms.” Though not fully legal, law enforcement in the Denver area now consider the possession of the fungi a relatively-low priority. Once again, similar to the debate on cannabis, this makes us beg the question on an individual level: is it safe? This is certainly an important question, especially from a scientific standpoint. However, as with most issues in science, it’s highly uncertain.
The story of the investigation into the effects of psychedelic substances starts in the 1960s with the rise of the recreational use of mushrooms, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), salvia, etc. during the counterculture movement, and with events like the Woodstock music festival late in the decade. Users of these substances began reporting transcendent spiritual experiences, as well as a feeling of optimism and contentment far outliving the length of the immediate effects. These unique experiences quickly grabbed the attention of the government and scientific researchers alike1. Through the ‘60s, government agencies and academics worked in parallel to study the psychoactive materials, as well as the neural mechanisms targeted by the active ingredients present in these substances.
However, the discovery and subsequent explosion in use by the public resulted in most of these drugs being classified as schedule one drugs by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), meaning that there was no perceived medical benefit and the substances risked a high chance of abuse. This halted the majority of public research and required federal licenses to tackle these questions. These licenses ensured that only a limited amount of primary literature trickled into the scientific community, with little progress made outside the select few labs that obtained permits by the federal government to study them. Federal agencies continued their research into the effects, but with potentially more nefarious intents. The notorious Project MKUltra spearheaded by the CIA, for example, attempted to use psychedelic LSD to brainwash and control users by subjecting them to psychological torture during their “trip.”2,3 The agency’s project came under public scrutiny when a U.S. Senate committee launched an investigation into the top-secret affairs of the agency during the mid ‘70s.
With psychedelic substances back in the news, a surge of interest from scientists in the potential use of psychoactive substances as treatments for psychological disorders reamurged. Similar to the decade before, research into this question continued to be hindered by the federal classification of the drugs. Once again, bureaucracy and public opinion greatly dissuaded many investigators from pursuing what some had considered a miracle in the treatment of some of the world’s most puzzling psychological disorders.
In the last twenty years, however, the pendulum of opinion towards the efficacy of psychoactive substances in psychiatric medicine has swung back in the substances’ favor, with Johns Hopkins University leading the charge. As mentioned before, academic research was hindered by licensing from the DEA, leaving only a handful of labs able to conduct research of any kind into the substances and their respective effects. These labs, for the most part, were scattered around the country. With basic science relying heavily on collaboration and communication, this was not an ideal scenario for making progress. In 1993, Johns Hopkins, as well as other major research institutions such as NYU and Yale, founded the Heffter Research Institute, a consortium whose main focus is understanding the far reaching effects of the psychoactive substance in magic mushrooms, psilocybin.
In their mission statement, the institute states that they strive to “[help] design, review, and fund the leading studies on psilocybin at prominent research institutions in the US and Europe. Our research has explored psilocybin for the treatment of cancer-related distress and addiction, for understanding the relationship between the psychedelic experience and spirituality, and for basic science research into the physiology of brain activity, cognition, and behavior. The Heffter Institute believes that psychedelics have great, unexplored potential that requires independently funded scientific research to find their best uses in medical treatment.” 4
Though not conducting research at their headquarters in New Mexico, the Heffter Institute was one of the first to fund research on using psychoactive substances to treat addiction, PTSD, and depression, with their funding received by studies published by some of the world’s highest impact journals, such as Nature Reviews Neuroscience5 and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America6.
With all the milestones Heffter has accomplished in its lifetime, it wasn’t until early September 2019 that the United States received its first institute devoted to solely researching psychedelic drugs in-house. The Johns Hopkins University received $17 million from private funding to start their Center for Psychedelic Research. Although still early in its inception, the center has stated their strong commitment to “exploring innovative treatments for our patients” according to the dean of the medical faculty at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine7.
The use of these substances presents not just a new frontier in neuropsychiatric treatment, but as a way to move away from traditional, highly addictive substances for treating chronic pain by use of narcotics and opioids. Psychoactive but non-hallucinogenic substances such as Ketamine and Nitrous Oxide have presented themselves as potential substitutes to these traditional drugs8. The rejuvenation of research, and the potential turnaround of public opinion surrounding these drugs as a medical treatment, launches American psychiatric research into a new era. If these drugs prove themselves a worthy substitute, they could provide much needed momentum in combating the nation’s opioid epidemic and other addiction struggles by alleviating both withdrawal symptoms, and acting as a substitute for opioid’s pain relieving qualities.
1Rinkel, M., Atwell, C. R., Dimascio, A., & Brown, J. (1960). Experimental Psychiatry. V — Psilocybine, a New Psychotogenic Drug. The New England Journal of Medicine, 262(6), 295–297. doi: 10.1056/nejm196002112620606
2Jacobs, J. (1977 27). Dialogue Sought With Professor In CIA Probe. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/CIA-RDP88-01315R000400250013-0.pdf
3(2007, March 6). Retrieved from https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/CIA-RDP99-00498R000300020007-3.pdf
4Home. (0AD). Retrieved from https://heffter.org/
5Vollenweider, F. X., & Kometer, M. (2010). The neurobiology of psychedelic drugs: implications for the treatment of mood disorders. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 11(9), 642–651. doi: 10.1038/nrn2884
6Carhart-Harris, R. L., Erritzoe, D., Williams, T., Stone, J. M., Reed, L. J., Colasanti, A., … Nutt, D. J. (2012). Neural correlates of the psychedelic state as determined by fMRI studies with psilocybin. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(6), 2138–2143. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1119598109
7Asmelash, L. (2019, September 5). Johns Hopkins has launched the first center devoted exclusively to researching psychedelic drugs in the U.S. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2019/09/05/us/johns-hopkins-psychedelic-research-center-trnd/index.html
8Finnerup, N. B. (2019). Nonnarcotic Methods of Pain Management. The New England Journal of Medicine, 380(25), 2440–2448. doi: 10.1056/nejmra1807061