(Editor’s Note: Welcome to the first installment of “From Magic to Money,” a Bold series on the rising psilocybin industry. Future stories in the series will focus on the legal aspects of psilocybin, the companies making moves in the space, and what the future may hold for those involved. Don’t miss any of them–sign up for The Bold Wire newsletter and have them sent directly to your inbox!)
During the counterculture movement of the 1960s, the use of psychedelics was rampant. But not long after, the War on Drugs targeted these substances, as well as many others, causing them to quickly fall out of favor. However, hallucinogenics now look to be following in the same footsteps as cannabis and CBD. Psychedelic treatment is gaining increasing support for a variety of mental health diseases in many states. More specifically, the use of a specific ingredient of these substances, known as psilocybin therapy, has notable promise. As a result, many health experts are beginning to take a second look at these previously prohibited medications.
Psychedelic treatment is a relative new area of study, beginning a little more than a decade ago. While drugs like LSD were initially developed in the 1940s and 1950s for medicinal use, they never reached mainstream medicine. But this looks to be rapidly changing based on evidence-based research showing support. Psilocybin therapy is actively being investigated for conditions like depression, anxiety, addiction, and PTSD. And thus far, the results appear to be pretty impressive. In fact, these substances may actually have much greater potential for human health and advancement than previously realized.
“Psychedelics or hallucinogens cause visual hallucinations which change the way you see the world. But the most important part of their effects for those of us who are looking at their therapeutic uses is that they also heighten people’s emotions.” – Bruna Giribaldi, Clinical Trial Manager, Psychedelic Research and Neuropsychopharmacology, Imperial College London
How Psilocybin Therapy Works
Naturally, there are a number of substances that are considered hallucinogens. The main one in LSD is lysergic acid while peyote contains mescaline. But the main one being investigated the most for psychedelic treatment is psilocybin, which is found naturally in some mushrooms. Often referred to as magic mushrooms, these are native to parts of the U.S. as well as Central and South America. Likewise, they have been consumed for millennia as part of healing and religious practices. Thus, current considerations of psilocybin therapy for health problems is not that far-fetched.
In essence, psilocybin is metabolized quickly to psilocin after it is consumed. Psilocin is known to bind to a specific type of serotonin receptor in the brain called 5-HT2A. Interestingly, a variety of pharmaceutical drugs on the market target serotonin and these receptors to treat mental health conditions. This includes drugs like Prozac and Zoloft. But psilocybin therapy is different in that it binds much more strongly and diffusely. As a result, its effects are more profound as well as more lasting, based on current research. Experts believe this is because this psychedelic treatment promotes a rewiring of the brain that can have long-lasting positive effects.
“The magnitude of the effect [of psilocybin therapy] we saw was about four times larger than what clinical trials have shown for traditional antidepressants on the market.” – Alan Davis, Ph.D., Adjunct Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research
Theory and Evidence Supporting Psychedelic Treatment
From a theoretical perspective, psilocybin therapy is able to achieve what other serotonin drugs has not. Experts suggest that this substance binds serotonin receptors so broadly that it connects brain areas not normally connected. For example, connections between visual and auditory areas of the brains account for bizarre hallucinations involve sight and sound. This ability is how psychedelic treatment is believed to work. By creating these new brain pathways, rigid beliefs and perceptions are weakened. This allows greater flexibility and openness to consider new alternatives. Thus, when combined with positive support psychotherapy, psychedelic treatment can help a number of mental health issues.
There is now evidence to support these theories as well. In a study involving 24 adults with known depression, researchers at Johns Hopkins demonstrated a positive effect with psilocybin therapy. Each person received two 5-hour sessions over four weeks’ time. At the end of the study, over 70% had greater than 50% reduction in their depression symptoms. Even more, over half were considered to be in complete remission. Though larger and longer duration studies are needed, these results were impressive. If continued psychedelic treatment would allow a more permanent and lasting effect, this could revolutionize mental health management.
“How do we explain the incredible magnitude and durability of effects [of psilocybin therapy]? Treatment research with moderate to high doses of psychedelics may uncover entirely new paradigms for understanding and improving mood and mind. This is a taste of things to come…” – Tim Ferriss, Serial Entrepreneur and Investor in Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research
The Potential Scope of Psychedelic Treatment
In terms of mental health, psychedelic treatment is being tried in a variety of conditions with some success. In addition to depression, psilocybin therapy has shown promise in managing anxiety and PTSD. Specifically in PTSD, these substances enable re-experiencing previous trauma that might be otherwise suppressed. When this occurs in a safe setting with trained therapists, the outcomes have been beneficial. In addition, psilocybin has also been beneficial in treating both nicotine and alcohol addiction. In all cases, the substance appears to alter perceptions and emotions to create healthier behaviors and perspectives.
There’s no question that significant advances appear to be occurring in mental healthcare. Over the last few years, a vast number of mental health apps have been introduced to the market. (Read more about the steady rise of mental health apps in this Bold story.) Likewise, artificial intelligence is also being used to guide care as well. But psychedelic treatment has a potential that goes beyond the management of mental health conditions. Some believe these types of substances could unlock even greater human potential and lead to advanced capacities and wellness. Certainly, this type of research has yet to be pursued to any significant degree. But if psilocybin therapy proves beneficial for mental health disorders in general, this may very be the next step.