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Why are Drug Companies Investing Big Time in Therapeutic Psychedelics?

Rising investments in an uncharted avenue

Ancient civilizations believed that psychedelic compounds could alter human consciousness, thereby dubbing them “spiritual guides”. Now, drug companies are investing big-time in the therapeutic psychedelic industry after scientific studies highlighting their beneficial effects in treating psychiatric illnesses started emerging.

However, the in-depth scientific study of psychedelic compounds has been disregarded for many decades. Much of it is because of them being too politically charged and the perspective around these substances as psychosis-inducing bane that’s created in mainstream society by governments. The 1971 United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances placed psychedelics in its most restrictive category. However, times are now changing as their benefits are hailed by many psychiatrists and drug companies.

Major drug companies are now showing keen interest in psychedelic substances like Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), psilocybin (magic mushrooms), and 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), in addition to mind-altering, non-psychedelic drugs like ketamine. That’s because studies have shown these compounds can be the next breakthrough in the treatment of mental illnesses. People suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depressive disorder, substance disorder, and existential distress can find great healing potential in psychedelic compounds when other therapies have failed to deliver results.

So far, more than 80 drug companies have devoted themselves to creating or administering certain psychedelic compounds. Investors in the therapeutic psychedelic industry reckon that the demand for safe and effective psychedelic therapies will hike significantly in the years to come. Moreover, some of the companies are focused on first­-gen psychedelic compounds like MDM, also known as ecstasy, and psilocybin.

There are firms that wonder if they can use information derived from scientific studies conducted on the receptors in the brain that bind to these molecules to boost them by bringing down certain negative properties of the drug. This can be cardiac side effects and risk of heavy drug use. Some drug companies are even expecting to create molecules of psychedelic compounds that do away with the hallucinogenic effects completely while retaining their therapeutic features. However, many scientists believe that the psychedelic “high” changes the perspective—something that’s considered crucial for treating people with mental illness.

A quick peek into history

The present surge in the popularity of psychedelic compounds started with studies that were conducted during the mid-2010s. Research groups at the New York University, University of California, Imperial College London, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Zurich unraveled the fast and durable effects of psychedelics, especially psilocybin, to treat those with treatment-resistant mental illnesses like depression, PTSD, and existential distress.

The results of the studies dismantled the paradigm for typical drug therapies for mental health problems, according to Fred Barrett, a cognitive neuroscientist, and researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research. Patients suffering from intractable mental health issues saw lasting effects after just one or two administrations under controlled conditions and coupled with psychotherapy.

The first company in the United States to be rewarded for attempting to endorse a mind-altering compound was Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen Pharmaceuticals. In 2019, the company got US Food and Drug Administration approval to launch Spravato for treatment-resistant depressive disorder. Essentially, Spravato is a nasal spray containing an anesthetic S enantiomer of ketamine and a party drug, called Special K. Patients self-administer Spravato in a doctor’s clinic or medical setting and then remain under supervision for a few hours. People typically are given two treatments a week for four weeks along with an antidepressant.

Technically speaking, ketamine is not a psychedelic compound. However, its approval laid the foundation for the idea of treating difficult mental health conditions using a substance that’s widely considered illicit. The use of ketamine treatment was foreseen as a breakthrough in a field that has been stagnant in terms of innovation after the SSRIs, which happened in the 1980s. It was only last year that researchers from the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) and many other institutions published the results they got from a Phase 3 clinical trial. As a part of the trial, people suffering from PTSD were given three doses of MDMA at an interval of four weeks, coupled with psychotherapy. Such people showed sustained improvement just two months after the treatment, contrary to those who consumed a placebo.

Conclusion

The surge in investment in therapeutic psychedelics shows no sign of slowing down. The rate is likely to continue increasing as several larger companies are inching closer to launch. Surely, that’s going to propel the industry, which is poised to offer hope and relief to people who desperately require alternative therapies.

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How Psychedelics Can Help Patients Have Substantial Breakthroughs

Just a few years ago, therapy was considered taboo. Something that only a “certain kind of person” would seek.

But research shows that younger cohorts today are more likely to take up therapy than in the past. During the Covid19 pandemic, 30% of adult Americans sought in-person therapy with a professional, while 36% of millennials and Gen Z’ers turned to social media to get more resources on mental health. In fact, millennials have been found to seek therapy at a 10% faster rate than their Baby Boomer generation counterparts.

As a consequence of therapy becoming more normalized today, another development has taken place. More counselors and psychiatrists today are confident in recommending therapeutic psychedelics to supplement therapy sessions for patients.

But why?

Psychedelics – medicine for mental peace or medium for mystic experiences?

In the 1950s when Humphrey Osmond proposed LSD to address the problem of alcoholism and its mental health concerns surrounding addiction, not many doctors were keen to follow his advice. It was, after all, one of the first times a psychedelic was used for treating mental health conditions. But things have changed considerably today.

It’s true that Osmond’s belief that LSD could scare patients into desisting addictive behaviors was not completely accurate. But, as research shows, it did turn out to be something far more profound for patients.

Many studies, including one published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, showed how participants consuming psilocybin experienced mystical and spiritual-type experiences during the study. These studies show that consuming psychedelics can lead to a transformative experience, which leads to intense epiphanies and a sense of awakening. For example, a 2021 study titled, “Psychedelics alter metaphysical beliefs” discussed how effective psychedelics were in generating fresh ways of looking at metaphysical and religious beliefs in a large number of participants.

Another study published in the International Journal of Drug Policy showed how the brains of people on psychedelic trips revert to storytelling as a tool to extract understandable narratives from the hallucinogenic experiences they have. Even if the trips they have were bad, many people using LSD and psilocybin reported how the psychedelics allowed them to confront and acknowledge their repressed emotions, memories, and trauma. During the study, many patients reported feeling grateful for the bad trip, because of the insights they received from it.

Another study, “Making “bad trips” good: How users of psychedelics narratively transform challenging trips into valuable experiences”, seconds these findings. According to this paper, storytelling becomes a form of coping mechanism that enables people to come to terms with what they experienced or are undergoing now, and find ways to express their feelings.

It is this finding – which is echoed in other studies of a similar nature – that has led many researchers around the world to study how therapeutic psychedelics can be used during therapy sessions to help patients gain better insights and experience psychological breakthroughs.

What’s happening in the brain?

While it isn’t perfectly clear how psychedelics are helping people experience these epiphanies, scientists believe it might have something to do with how these drugs affect brain activity.

Psychedelics have been found to reduce the activity that occurs in the amygdala, which controls our response to fear and threats.

Simultaneously, psychedelics increase the activity in our prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain responsible for all cognitive functions, including memory, impulse, and inhibition.

While this is happening, parallelly, psychedelics reduce activity in the default mode network (DMN). This is a region of the brain which is very active when you’re restful and engaging in activities like daydreaming. But the DMN has low activity when you’re consciously thinking or concentrating on something. By lowering DMN activity, psychedelics stimulate critical self-reflection during the trip.

In this way, therapeutic psychedelics, when used during counseling sessions and therapy, can bring the mind to a state of lowered inhibition. This allows the individual to – depending on whether it’s an easy or a hard trip – experience their fears and repressed memories at different degrees of intensity. During this time, the person engages in reflection and consideration of these thoughts, feelings, and memories semi-consciously. This allows them to unlock new perspectives and sometimes, make significant breakthroughs about their issues.

Won’t a hard or bad trip do more harm than good for patients?

Scientists say this is possible but unlikely. The trick to preventing regression during therapy is to ensure patients have the right support system during therapeutic psychedelic treatments. This is why doctors who prescribe therapeutic psychedelics for therapy patients, first consult the patient’s family and friends to identify if they have a strong support structure to lean on. It is only after the entire group is briefed about what the patient may experience and how long it takes them to recover from the hallucinogenic experience, that the treatment is administered. Other coping and grounding mechanisms are also shared with patients to help them return to reality after the trip.

Patients are also monitored for signs of addiction and abuse – although psychedelics like LSD have been found to have very limited addictive features.

Wrapping up

Overall, there is a bright prospect for the role of therapeutic psychedelics in therapy. Researchers and doctors have started doing significant research on how psychedelics like MDMA can help patients cope with post-traumatic stress disorder and how psilocybin can play a role in managing depression symptoms.

When done alongside cognitive behavioral therapy and other forms of mental health therapy, psychedelics like MDMA, LSD, and psilocybin can truly have a therapeutic and empowering impact on patients.

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Psychedelic Therapy for Autistic Kids

Autism, also known as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a complex condition associated with the development of the brain. This disorder affects how an individual interacts with other people, causing issues with communication and social interactions. Autism is also characterized by a restricted and repetitive sequence of behaviors.

ASD now includes numerous other disorders that were previously recognized as separate diseases. These conditions include autism, childhood disintegrative disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, and a form of pervasive developmental disorder.

ASD usually starts during early childhood and starts causing problems in situations demanding social interaction like school or work. The symptoms of autism can be observed often during the first year of a child’s development. There are also some cases where the child shows symptoms later on, between 18 and 24 months of age.

There is no cure for AUD. But with early detection and proper medical care, it is possible to make a huge difference in the child’s life.

Psychedelics – definition

Psychedelics, also called hallucinogens, are a group of psychoactive or hallucinogenic drugs that produce changes in mood, perception, and cognition. They influence all the human senses and alter a person’s judgment, emotions, and perception of time. These drugs can also cause people to hallucinate, making them hear or see nonexistent things.

Psychedelics and the treatment of autism

There are numerous controversies surrounding the use of psychedelics like LSD for medicinal or therapeutic purposes. Psychedelic drugs like LSD and psilocybin are Schedule I medicines. This means they are not approved by the US government to be used for medicinal purposes.

Numerous research studies are being done to study the potential benefits of psychedelic drugs when used to treat disorders like autism.

In recent years, psychedelic drugs have started to attract the attention of several investors due to their potential to treat autism. Several pharmaceutical companies are now focusing on creating psychedelic-based treatments.

LSD and autism treatment

The effects of LSD on people with autism have been studied as early as the 1960s. Even though the studies were not conducted in a controlled environment, they yielded positive results. But the major flaw associated with this study was the flawed assumption that autism had no other treatment options.

But recently, studies have been resumed to understand the potential benefits of LSD in managing autism.

The use of LSD in autistic patients has resulted in several positive effects, including:

  • Improved speech
  • Improved sleep
  • Increased positive moods
  • Improved emotional responsiveness
  • Less dissociation
  • Improved relaxation
  • Reduced obsessive behaviors
  • Improved social interactions

The mechanism of LSD’s action in autistic people is not yet fully studied. Studies have shown that people with autism and Asperger’s syndrome have low serotonin levels in the brain. LSD works by influencing the serotonin receptors. This will help in improving the social interactions of the person. It also helps autistic people process their emotions better.

The thought processes of autistic people are markedly different from those of non-autistic people. Using LSD can aid them in sorting out their thoughts in a coherent fashion.

Psilocybin and autism treatment

Psilocybin, also called magic mushrooms, is a potent psychedelic drug that affects perception, mood, and behavior. Research conducted on psilocybin has shown that it can influence the way in which different sections of the brain communicate with one another. Psilocybin has a proven effect on reducing depression, anxiety, OCD symptoms, and nicotine addiction.

Extensive studies are being done to develop a treatment for autism using psilocybin with a focus given on fragile X syndrome. This syndrome is responsible for developmental issues like cognitive impairment and learning disabilities connected with autism. Experiments conducted on rats have shown a considerable reduction in anxiety and improvement in cognitive functions.

Psilocybin, similar to LSD, improves mood and social interactions by influencing the serotonin receptors in the brain.

MDMA and autism treatment

MDMA – scientific name 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine – is a psychotropic drug commonly called ecstasy. MDMA is famous for its potent ability to foster empathy and enhance sensory perception.

Numerous studies conducted on MDMA have revealed the prosocial components present in the drug. It has the capability to improve people’s ability to love others. This can help autistic people by improving their social and emotional interactions. MDMA also hinders a person’s ability to perceive negative emotions like fear or anxiety.

MDMA-assisted therapies are also a good method to help manage autism. This therapeutic strategy can help manage anxiety, especially in autistic individuals who are high-functioning.

Psychedelic drugs have the immense capability to improve the lives of autistic people. With proper research and application, psychedelic drugs can be made into mainstream therapeutic drugs to revolutionize the treatment of such complicated disorders.