Upfront

Forty years after federal laws criminalized the use of psychedelics for non-medical purposes in FDA-regulated psychological and drug research, the study of these drugs is picking up again, and their use in treating certain patients shows promise. Researchers are finding that the drugs may help improve functioning and lift the spirits of those with cancer and other terminal diseases, as well help treat people with post-traumatic stress disorder.

In a pilot study published online in September and slated to appear in the January 2011 Archives of General Psychiatry (Vol. 68, No. 1), University of California, Los Angeles, researchers led by Charles Grob, MD, showed that a modest dose of psilocybin — the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms” — given to terminal cancer patients under the supervision of trained therapists helped ease anxiety and improve mood for up to six months. In addition to feeling calmer and happier, researchers say, the participants reported forging a closer connection to friends and family members.

These types of research studies have continued to point to the possibility that the benefits of these illegal drugs may outweigh the risks in certain scenarios. As a result, the FDA and the Drug Enforcement Administration have eased regulations and also given approval to researchers at Johns Hopkins University and New York University’s Langone Medical Center to study the use of psilocybin to treat death anxiety among cancer patients.

Several other small-scale studies have also shown success in using another mind-altering drug — MDMA, often referred to as ecstasy — in conjunction with psychotherapy to treat PTSD. In a study with 20 patients published online in July in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, South Carolina-based psychiatrist Michael Mithoefer, MD, and colleagues provided two eight-hour psychotherapy sessions to patients, half of whom received a dose of MDMA during the sessions and the other half a placebo. Two months after the last session, researchers found that more than 80 percent of the trial group no longer met diagnostic criteria for PTSD, compared with only 25 percent of the control group. Mithoefer is now recruiting subjects for a pilot study of PTSD treatment among veterans.

In all of these studies, the goal was to help patients reduce their fears, says Thomas Roberts, PhD, an educational psychologist at Northern Illinois University and co-editor of “Psychedelic Medicine” (Praeger, 2007). “It is more psychotherapeutic than biological or neurological,” he says.

It’s important to note, researchers say, that psychedelic drugs can elicit fear, anxiety or paranoia, depending on the dose provided and an individual’s personality. Therefore, this research is done only in a carefully controlled setting and under the care of a trained therapist.

Rick Doblin, PhD, executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies, a California-based nonprofit organization that is funding several of these studies, says psychologists will be increasingly tapped to conduct this research and explore the ramifications of the use of psychedelics.

“Considering how important improving end-of-life care has become in our society, as evidenced by the rise of the hospice movement, I think it’s likely that this field will continue to expand and become more relevant,” Doblin says.

—A. Novotney