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Hard drugs offering hope in mental health crises?

Magic mushrooms for depression, acid for alcoholism, ecstasy for trauma – leading drug scientist prescribes the way ahead.

Magic Mushrooms sit in a fridge on July 18, 2005 in London, England. The sale of fresh mushrooms has been prohibited as of today due to the reclassification of the drug to Class A.  Credit: Getty Images A scientist is pushing the use of magic mushrooms to treat depression.
Credit: Getty Images

Desperate for a fix, Professor David Nutt considered buying magic mushrooms on the street. Restrictions on the drug were making it impossible to conduct clinical trials, and Nutt had no way to secure the mushrooms that are widely available from illegal dealers.

“Fortunately the publicity helped; we are optimistic about the license and supply now,” Nutt, head of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London told Metro. No stranger to controversy – Nutt was sacked as government adviser for claiming ecstasy is as safe as horseback riding – he is set to push the boundaries with the first trial of magic mushrooms for the treatment of depression.

Research has shown that psilocybin, the active ingredient in mushrooms, dampens the brain's anterior cingulate cortex, which is overactive in depression sufferers. Trials will target the most severe cases. “The hypothesis is lasting benefits for people who have not responded to interventions,” says Nutt. “I’m not saying we will revolutionize depression treatment, but there is a group for whom it will be useful.”

If the treatment seems radical, the professor argues it is proportionate. “Depression is the largest cause of disability in Europe, and only two-thirds of people get well. The rest are out of work and can’t cope – we have to try everything.”

Despite a rigorous attachment to evidence, Nutt admits he is fighting a crusade and wants to "tap into a reservoir" of hard drugs in clinical practice. “It’s a campaign for the liberation of science – drug laws have censored research in this field for 60 years. I think it’s the worst censorship since the Catholic Church stopped Galileo using his telescope.”

Psilocybin and other mind-altering drugs are becoming popular solutions to a broad spectrum of mental health issues. A 2012 study found that ecstasy chemical MDMA had a lasting impact on post-traumatic stress disorder. Norwegian academics recently found that LSD improved misuse rates in 59% of alcoholics.

“LSD seems to help people see their problems in a different light, to give new insights into their problems … and to make a strong resolution to discontinue their drinking,” said psychologist Pål Johansen, who led the Norwegian study. “It was not unusual for patients to become much more self-accepting, and to adopt a more positive, optimistic view of their capacities to face future problems.”

It is the "state" induced by such drugs that has proved controversial, with claims that such powerful effects are unpredictable and can add to mental health problems. “Certainly there can be short-term devastating effects,” said Dr. Adam Winstock, addiction psychologist and drug expert. “A bad trip can worsen pre-existing conditions, there would need to be careful psychological assessment first.”

But he added: “It’s sensible to seek new treatment for conditions we don’t treat well. People take antidepressants for years at a massive cost for health care and productivity. Professor Nutt is working as a treatment ‘prospector’, and if he strikes gold there will be a gold rush.”

 
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