Monday, April 12, 2010

Psychadelics: The new anti-depressants?

One of my roommates came home this morning eager to tell me and our other roommate about an article she had read in the New York Times in which scientists have begun experimenting with psilocybin--the active chemical in hallucinogenic mushrooms--as treatment for "end-of-life anxiety" in cancer patients, as well as drug and alcohol addiction, OCD, and depression. Finding myself intrigued, I went to the New York Times and read the article in which a psychiatrist, diagnosed with kidney cancer, began experimenting with treatments with psilocybin after he became extremely depressed about facing his own mortality as his chemotherapy failed. End-of-life anxiety, as the article calls it, is a common disorder faced by patients with terminal diseases. Dr. Clark Martin became depressed about losing his daughters, about leaving behind everything he had cultivated in this life. However, upon experimenting (with controlled and supervised) psilocybin, he began to see things on a cosmic level. As he put it, "All of a sudden, everything familiar started evaporating." The way I processed this treatment is that the hallucinogenic effects of psilocybin allow the patient to be made aware--or as much as humanly possible--the extent of the universe. That one person with one disease is all right. That material possessions, worldy ties, etc. are not as important as we think. Everything, everything on a cosmic level, will be okay. An overwhelming sense of peace is reported.
As scientists again begin to study the effects of hallucinogens, there is skepticism that it will just be a repeat of what happened in the 60s and 70s. However, in a double-blind study at Johns Hopkins, subjects (with no behavioral/mental-disorders and that had never used hallucinogens) were given psilocybin, a placebo, or another drug such as Ritalin or certain amphetamines. Participants that had received the psilocybin reported an overall sense of wellness. Two months later, they still attested to "significantly more improvements in their general feelings and behavior than did the members of the control group." Even 14 months later they STILL expressed an increased satisfaction with their lives.
While the studies are still small--the aforementioned at Johns Hopkins only containing 36 participants--perhaps our society can learn to use hallucinogens and psychotropics as many tribes have been doing for thousands of years. We may be a little slow on the uptake, but perhaps the overall effect of this "new" discovery will be a more pleasant, more cohesive society.

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