In 2000, the psychedelic research group at Johns Hopkins was the first to achieve U. S. regulatory approval to restart research with psychedelics. Since its inception, more than 60 peer reviewed articles show benefits for people who suffer from such conditions as nicotine addiction, and depression/anxiety caused by life-threatening diseases such as cancer. This has opened the door for current studies on treatment of major depressive disorder.
Today the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins Medicine has been formally created to advance the emerging field of psychedelics for the treatment of chronic illness, addiction and mental health challenges. Research at this center will focus on behavior, brain function, learning and memory, the brain’s biology and mood, opioid addiction, Alzheimer’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Lyme disease syndrome, anorexia nervosa and alcohol use in people with depression.
You may have already heard of the Johns Hopkins study on cancer patients and about their research. Michael Pollan, author of the current bestseller, How to Change Your Mind, also heard about the studies at Johns Hopkins and wrote an extensive book about the history and future of psychedelics.
If you are interested in a broader understanding of the Johns Hopkins pursuit into what they consider “braver and bolder” steps to help those suffering from chronic illness, addiction and mental health challenges, you might want to pick up Pollan’s book or at minimum, read this abbreviated blog of some of the jewels in How To Change Your Mind.
In his book Pollan examines how psychedelics can be used to relieve depression, addiction, obsession, PTSD and anxiety. He stresses that “set and setting” are important in determining the effectiveness of the experience. In other words, the client’s preparedness (“set”) and the atmosphere and support (“setting”) have much to do with the outcome. Thus, for best results, psychedelics should be used in a clinical setting and administered by an experienced practitioner.
The psychedelic drugs being considered to help improve cognitive function include MDMA, psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca, and mescaline. These are generally illegal, although all have been decriminalized in Oakland, California, and psilocybin has been decriminalized in Colorado. This legalization trend is expected to continue and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) director, Rick Doblin, anticipates the legalization of MDMA in psychotherapeutic settings for the treatment of PTSD as soon as 2021. Psilocybin is also a leading contender for legalization and use in psychotherapy.
According to Pollan, in addition to alleviating symptoms, psychedelics can empower healthy people to cope with life challenges. They can allow the brain to operate with greater flexibility and interconnectedness, increasing insight and creativity. They can also interrupt patterns of thought and behavior by changing neural patterns in the brain. One such mechanism identified is to breakup actions of the brain’s default mode network. The default mode network in the brain, whose activity is discernible with an fMFI, consists of the evolutionary newer regions of the cerebral cortex buffering or limiting memory and emotion generated in the deeper and older regions of the brain. This simplifies the thinking process and makes it more efficient but it does so at a cost, including a loss of distinction and detail. It is the state the brain moves towards in the absence of external stimulation.
The fMRI maps taken of the brain with and without psychedelic influence appear like two road maps, the first with the Interstate Highway System and major population centers dominant and the second (when on psychedelics) with the secondary roads and smaller towns more equally displayed. It appears that the experiential effect is increased awareness of distinction of color, sound, smell, recall, and general sensory perception. The increase in neural pathways allow an experience of newness and a perceiving of things more like the first time, and not anticipated. Psychedelics allow the brain to become less specialized and more globally interconnected. Pathways to additional regions appear, increasing insight and creativity.
Ketamine is a legalized psychedelic that is currently available treatment for depression and mood disorders. This year the nCenter Director will be attending a training designed for mental healthcare providers who want to gain a better framework for using ketamine therapy for mental health. She will learn how to combine ketamine with psychotherapy and how to ensure safe, effective treatment routes for clients receiving this modality.
There is growing speculation that the future of effective psychotherapy will involve the clinical use of psychedelics, and today the door is open for ketamine, an option worthy of exploration.
Jan Matney, LCPC is the Director of the nCenter in Bozeman and Belgrade.