Psychedelic drugs could prove to be highly effective treatments for depression and alcoholism, according to scientists who have obtained the first brain scans of people under the influence of LSD.
Early results from the trial, involving 20 people, are said to be “very promising” and add to existing evidence that psychoactive drugs could help reverse entrenched patterns of addictive or negative thinking.
However, Prof David Nutt, who led the study together with Amanda Feilding of the Beckley Foundation, warned that patients are missing out on the potential benefits of such treatments due to prohibitive regulations on research into recreational drugs.
Speaking at a briefing in London, the government’s former chief drugs adviser, said the restrictions amounted to “the worst censorship in the history of science”.
After failing to secure conventional funding to complete the analysis of the latest study on LSD, Nutt and colleagues at Imperial College London, are now attempting to raise £25,000 through the crowd-funding site Walacea.com.
“These drugs offer the greatest opportunity we have in mental health,” he said. “There’s little else on the horizon.”
There has been a resurgence of medical interest in LSD and psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, after several recent trials produced encouraging results for conditions ranging from depression in cancer patients to post-traumatic stress disorder.
A US study in 2014 showed that LSD helped patients with life-threatening illnesses overcome anxiety about death, in 2012 MDMA (the active ingredient in ecstasy) in combination with psychotherapy was shown to be effective at treating post-traumatic stress disorder and a 2006 study from scientists in Arizona found that psilocybin relieved symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
But government and funders in the UK remain unwilling to engage with the potential clinical benefits of psychoactive drugs, Nutt claimed.
He equated the barriers to research to the Catholic church’s censorship of Galileo’s work in 1616. “We’ve banned research on psychedelic drugs and other drugs like cannabis for 50 years,” he said. “Truly, in terms of the amount of wasted opportunity, it’s way greater than the banning of the telescope. This is a truly appalling level of censorship.”
Ravi Das, a neuroscientist at University College London who is researching the effects of ketamine, agreed that there is an institutional bias. “The potential benefits are definitely downplayed in face of these drugs being used recreationally,” he said. “People view their use in a research setting as ‘people are just having a good time’.”
However, the Medical Research Council, said that funding is simply allocated according to the quality of research. “We’re certainly not cautious about funding studies just because they relate to an illegal drug,” a spokesman said. “Professor Nutt currently receives over three quarters of a million pounds directly from the MRC for his psilocybin research and last year alone we spent over £860,000 on studies related to cannabis.”
In the latest study, carried out at Cardiff University, 20 healthy volunteers who had previous experience of LSD were injected with a “moderate” (75 microgram) dose of the drug before having the activity of their brains monitored using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
Robin Carhart-Harris, also from Imperial College, said the dose produced “quite profound effects”, in terms of brain activity and the mood and mental state of the participants. None of the volunteers reported having a “bad trip”, although three suffered some anxiety and temporary paranoia.
“I wouldn’t say that it’s a dangerous experiment but I would say that LSD has potential negative effects,” he said. “It’s not uncommon for people to have anxiety during a psychedelic drug experience. The experience can be nightmarish at times.”
He added that even those who had a challenging experience were “somehow psychologically refreshed” afterwards.
A previous brain imaging study, by the same team, showed that psilocybin decreased blood flow to certain important “hub structures” in the brain, meaning that closely linked brain areas became less tightly synchronised. The scientists believe that this could explain why the drug appears to help patients overcome conditions such as depression, addiction and post-traumatic stress where pathological patterns of thought become so entrenched they are difficult to reverse.
The team are planning a new psilocybin study in patients with depression, due to begin in May.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Drugs are illegal where scientific and medical analysis has shown they are harmful to human health. We have a clear licensing regime, supported by legislation, which allows legitimate research to take place in a secure environment while ensuring that harmful drugs are not misused and do not get into the hands of criminals.”