I went today to a lecture by Robin Cahart-Harris at the University of Oxford Psychiatry Department (where I do stuff in my guise as a research foundation director). Robin was visiting the department from Imperial College London. The title of his talk was “Psilocybin for depression: outcomes, mechanisms and future plans”.
Robin is interested in the potential use of psychedelic drugs in the treatment of depression. He summarised recent data from his department’s psilocybin depression study (the psychedelic component of magic mushrooms), and outlined plans for further research into whether this could be used to treat people with depression.
His subjects had been patients for who other forms of treatment had failed. They were understandably enthusiastic about this new approach, and the data indicated a definite improvement, that appeared to last – at least for the six months of the study. Neuroimaging was used to identify the brain processes involved.
Robin has studied the shamanic and spiritual aspects of magic mushrooms, and although trying very hard not to use the word “trip”, let it slip just the once. He feels that the two “trips” that entailed the treatment – one mild trip, then a week of so later, after some four hours of psychological preparation, a hefty dose of Psilocybin that can only have provided a good old-fashioned, full-on trip.
The patients talked afterwards of feeling more engaged with the world and with other people, having shut down their emotions and retreated into themselves; and of real, tangible beauty that previously they’d been able to see but not to feel themselves. This seems to speak to the teachings of various religions and contemplative disciplines, in which connecting to the universe and losing the limitations of “self” are the goals of long and strenuous practice.
Robin talked of “Resetting” – and even showed a large red “Reset” button on one of his slides. This is akin to the desired effect of ECT (electroconvulsive therapy), the deep brain stimulation being pioneered by my Co-Director Prof Morten Kringelbach, and some new work we’re looking at in the USA using magnetism. This is of course to use computer terminology to describe something organic, that isn’t (probably) anything like rebooting a computer.
Robin talked of people self-medicating using psychedelics. He was questioned about similar use of the anesthetic ketamin, and said this didn’t appear to be how this drug is in fact used recreationally.
This is clearly not something people can do at home… Two psychologists supervise each of the trips, for which the patient has received some four hours of preparative counselling. Plus the drug administration is dead accurate; a far cry from the dodgy “shrooms available to the most of the psychedelically inclined.