Mind-altering substances are being overhyped as wonder drugs
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In my inbox almost every week for the past five years, there has been a study, comment or press release about the potential health benefits of psychedelic substances.
Psychedelics are drugs that change the way we experience the world. They can alter our senses, and cause us to hallucinate. But they can also trigger experiences that are more difficult to define, such as “openness” and “expansion of consciousness.”
The reputation of psychedelics like psilocybin and LSD has been through something of a rollercoaster ride over the last 70 years or so. They went from generating excitement, to instilling fear or mistrust, at the very least, if media coverage is any indication. They have seen a recent revival.
A growing number of academic researchers, therapists, and companies are interested in the potential of psychedelics to treat mental-health disorders such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance use disorders, to name a few.
Recently, I came across a paper that suggested that psychedelics might be beneficial in treating obesity. Nicole Fadahunsi, along with her colleagues from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, wrote the paper. They argue that psychedelics could change our behavior and possibly get us off of addictive substances. This could also help others to change unhealthy eating habits. According to the authors, psychedelics may also open people up to lifestyle changes and other methods to weight loss.
We don’t yet have any good evidence to support this claim. Although there is limited evidence to support this claim, some psychedelics may be beneficial for some people suffering from depression or PTSD. A handful of trials suggest that MDMA, otherwise known as ecstasy, can improve the symptoms of people with severe PTSD, for example. A study published last year shows that psilocybin can be as effective in treating depression as any antidepressant.
But these trials have been criticised. Take the psilocybin trial, for instance. It was designed to determine if the drug could reduce depression symptoms in participants by using a questionnaire. This goal was not met. The study’s authors wrote that “no conclusions can be drawn from this data.”
That didn’t stop the study’s lead author, Robin Carhart-Harris, then at Imperial College London in the UK, from claiming in an article in The Guardian, just five days after the study’s publication, that “psilocybin appear[s] to be a more successful treatment for depression than a typical antidepressant.”
In that same article, the scientist wrote that he believes we are on the verge of “a paradigm shift in mental healthcare linked to an improved understanding of the origins of depression, and how we can most effectively treat it.”
Other researchers have questioned whether the trial should have been published at all. “We wondered why the editors published an underpowered, short-term, phase 2 trial that could not support any clinical conclusions,” Wayne Hall of the University of Queensland in Australia and Keith Humphreys at Stanford University in California wrote in a different journal a couple of months ago.
“Unfortunately, psychedelic substances have recently come to prominence through the unwisely lowering of research standards in some major medical journals as well as the inappropriate exaggeration and reporting of research results by scientists in the popular media,” the pair wrote. Ouch.
I have to say that as someone who has been following this research for the last 10 years, I agree to some extent. It seems like the mood has changed too quickly. We’ve moved from disapproving these illicit substances to hailing their wonder drugs. We don’t have any evidence that psychedelics will change health care.
Some believe that psychedelics research is “trapped in a hype bubble.” A trio of researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore–two of them working at the university’s Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research–think that belief and investment in psychedelics as a cure-all for mental-health disorders have peaked. The bubble is about to burst, they wrote in August.
I hope it is. There is a lot of amazing work happening in this field, but it doesn’t have to be hyped. Although we don’t know what psychedelics do for our brains, studies have shown that some may increase plasticity–the ability of neural circuits to change and to form new connections. Given the importance of learning and plasticity, it is likely that psychedelics, or at least some compounds from them, will be beneficial to some people in certain circumstances.
Obesity might seem a little extreme. My mind is open for convincing, solid data without the need to use psychedelics.
Read more from Tech Review’s archive:
MDMA does seem to have helped Nathan McGee, who took the drug as part of a clinical trial. He told my colleague Charlotte Jee that he “understands what joy is now.”
Some researchers are trying to re-create the experience of taking psychedelics using virtual reality. Hana Kiros gave it a go.
Others are using AI to analyze “trip reports” to figure out what exactly psychedelic drugs do to our brains, I reported in March.
There are lots of anecdotal evidence to draw upon. Plenty of people are sharing stories of their own experiences with psychedelics online, as Taylor Majewski reported earlier this year.
From around the web:
Ten thousand people died from covid-19 last week. The World Health Organization hopes to declare that the virus is not a global emergency at some point next. (WHO)
Covid cases are surging in China as restrictions are lifted, and authorities are urging people not to panic-buy fever medication, painkillers–and canned peaches. (CNN)
Telehealth websites are leaking users’ sensitive health information to tech companies. An investigation revealed that Facebook is sharing personal, identifying information and information about people’s mental health. (STAT)
A personalized mRNA cancer vaccine has performed well in a phase 2 clinical trial, according to an announcement by pharma companies Moderna and Merck. When used alongside an existing drug, the mRNA vaccine reduced the risk of cancer recurrence or death by 44% over use of the existing drug alone. (Moderna)
Volunteers with depression are having 14 electrodes implanted into their brains to better understand and treat their symptoms. Neuroscientists have used the data collected so far to create a “mood decoder.” “Depression is like a constant weight on your soul,” one volunteer who had his brain stimulated told me. “When they touched that perfect little spot, that weight lifted.” (MIT Technology Review)
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.