OPEN Foundation

Psychiatry

psychedelic clinical trial participants share their stories

Story by Vardit Kohn
Illustration by Anna Temczuk

Until recently, there was no advocacy or central voice for the participants in clinical trials involving psychedelics. Now, there is PsyPAN, a non-profit organisation set up to connect and empower psychedelic participants. Founders Ian Roullier and Leonie Schneider both participated in such trials. Ian took part in the psilocybin for depression trials at Imperial College (2015) and Compass Pathways (2019). Leonie took part in the second phase of the psilocybin for depression study at Imperial College (2019) and the DMT for depression trial at Small Pharma (2022). They were later invited to take part in Dr. Rosalind Watts’ one-year integration programme, where they met.

Towards the end of the programme, Leonie and Ian discovered they had a shared interest – both in advocating for the spread of psychedelic treatment for mental health as well as having the patients’ perspective duly represented. No organisation representing the patient’s viewpoints existed, while the number of participants in psychedelic trials is increasing by the day. And as the standards for these novel treatments are now being developed, both felt that the voice of the patient needed to be heard louder.

So, in 2021, Leonie and Ian founded the Psychedelic Participant Advocacy Network: PsyPAN. It’s a non-profit organisation set up to connect and empower all psychedelic participants. PsyPAN aims to give a collective voice to all participants and help improve participant safety and wellbeing, by working on developing best practices across all levels of the global psychedelic sector – clinical and non-clinical alike. 

As the psychedelic sector is expanding at a breathtaking pace, companies, clinicians and modern-day curanderos alike have a lot to learn from the persons seeking their help. We talked to Leonie and Ian for this interview.

Leonie and Ian will also be speaking at ICPR 2022, the psychedelic conference organised by the OPEN Foundation, which has been promoting psychedelic research and therapy since 2007.

What motivated you to set up PsyPAN?
Ian: We both participated in clinical trials designed to test the effects of psilocybin and DMT on depression.  Our wildly varied, but generally positive personal experiences triggered a wish to bring these treatments to more people and at the same time ensure the treatments are delivered safely and responsibly. 

Leonie: We want to ensure the ‘participant’s voice’ is taken into account when clinical trials are designed, so that the trials can be tailored to meet the wide range of experiences. Despite some unifying themes across the psychedelic experience,, it is such a personal process, and deep trauma and psychological issues can present in so many different ways.  We want to provide a feedback loop: taking what participants say, giving that to industry, and having industry respond to what participants require in this process. So that we can ensure these treatments are tailored and take nuances and details into account.

Ian: Next to the ‘participants’ voice’ we keenly engage in advocacy work, destigmatizing the image of psychedelics, dispelling misunderstandings and fear. We are keen to ensure that more people can benefit from these treatments in a safe and appropriate way. 

Ian Roullier and Leonie Schneider recently launched the Psychedelic Participant Advocacy Network – PsyPAN. With their new organisation, they want to represent the voice of the participants of psychedelic trials. In this video, we go over some of the highlights of our conversation.

Is psychedelic therapy especially prone to safety risks?
Ian: Yes, psychedelic therapy is more risky than, for example, giving someone an SSRI. Psychedelic substances lay you bare and much more vulnerable, you can’t just get up and go back to work as if nothing happened. It is also their strength; but therein also lies the potential for healing. 

Leonie: Safety is therefore key, so developing psychedelic safeguarding guidelines is where we can help organisations.

Where do you see your contribution to the rapidly developing market of psychedelic therapy?
Ian: We work with organisations to ensure that they have the finer details in place, and we hope to develop a model of best practice that organisations could follow. 

Leonie: Sometimes there are issues organisations simply haven’t thought of because those involved haven’t suffered from the issues that people with a clinical diagnosis have gone through, nor have they taken part in clinical trials, so our feedback is valuable. We aim to help ensure that trials or treatments are delivered safely and appropriately, because the more corners cut, the less effective the treatment will be. 

What have you learned so far in the process that you were not expecting?
Ian: We found out that simply connecting people who have been through similar experiences is in itself of vital importance.

Leonie: Yeah. There is no community, or a place where you can go, to land after your experience. So it can be incredibly isolating. If you’ve been through a profound experience but can’t speak to anyone about it, you may still feel as isolated as you did pre-treatment, only in a different way. The circle of family and friends you go back to can’t necessarily understand what you have been through. We learned that there is a lot of value in simply creating a peer community for support.

Ian Rouillier and Leonie Schneider, featured in this article, will share their full stories at ICPR 2022, organised by the OPEN Foundation and held in Haarlem from 22-24 September 2022. Get €100 off on all tickets by using the code OPENBLOG100

If there was one thing you as participants in clinical trials would like to draw attention to, what would it be?
Ian : Open-label trials, in other words making sure that all participants who go through the process have access to a treatment dose. Contributing to science is wonderful, but if you’re so desperate as to be willing to participate in a clinical trial of a new substance, you really are in need of relief. To go through the process and only have a placebo is quite heartbreaking and potentially re-traumatising. To have access to the full treatment dose could therefore be life-saving for some. 

Leonie: Integration. Both of us participated in Rosalind Watts’ “Connectedness” program at Synthesis Institute which was the precursor to Dr Watts’ ACER Integration Programme, which was hugely beneficial. It connected us in monthly group meetings and group work (two groups of 10 participants each) for one full year. The psychedelics are catalysts, they likely allow more progress to be made during the integration. But this kind of deep, long-term integration and connection work has been hugely beneficial. 

Tell me more about Integration
Leonie: Having a space in which to integrate these experiences brought about by psychedelics is incredibly important, whether one-on-one or in a group, especially if the person has had long-term mental health issues. There is a need for longer-term and deeper level integration, not just a courtesy call of ‘how are you’. It’s about witnessing and supporting people every step of the journey.

As mentioned, we both participated in Rosalind Watts’ 1-year long “Connectedness” program. Due to Covid-19, the whole program was delivered online, which wasn’t the plan at all! And still it was so valuable. It kept many of us afloat, especially considering the pandemic. As long as there is a safe container, an online program can genuinely work.

The sweet spot could be to have online content enhanced with in-person meetings, hopefully in smaller, local groups (as treatments become more common) and outdoors, which allows for engagement with Nature. 

What part did the connection with Nature play in your healing process?
Leonie: Reconnecting with Nature and with every living thing is very powerful. For example, watching the same tree go through its year-long cycle, especially during the dark, deathly-looking winter months, realising this period is part of a longer cycle, realizing there is still a lot happening under the surface even if above ground the tree looks barren – this was all very meaningful. 

Most of mental illness is exacerbated by trying to avoid feelings as opposed to accepting them. When you learn to see low moods as “this is my Wintering, and Spring will come”, it creates a meaningful marker, a reference point. 

What should organisations emphasise as the most important factors for a patient to consider before deciding to join a clinical psychedelic study?
Leonie: Organisations running clinical trials must make potential participants aware that the ‘trip day’ is just a catalyst. You’re in the process for the long run and there will be plenty of long-term, steady work that only starts after the day at the clinic. The importance of long-term integration and connection after the ‘trip day’ cannot and should not be underestimated.

Ian: Expectations should also be carefully managed regarding the chances of getting into the trial. Many people aren’t accepted. Furthermore, organisations would do well to question the kind of support networks potential candidates have in place, because a lot of support is needed right from the recruitment and screening stages. What further support is available during and after the treatment? Is there a community and family in place that can hold your experience, so you do not end up in crushing isolation, which might negate any benefit you could get from the treatment?

Organisations engaging in double-blind trials should also make it very clear that participants have a 50-50 chance of getting a placebo, which may result in disappointment. In the case of depression, you need to come off the anti-depressant medication, which makes you more vulnerable. You hope for an improvement but may end up with a placebo, with all the disappointment and anxiety this may cause. You may potentially end up in a worse position than you were before entering the trial. 

To what extent if any does treatment with different psychedelic substances require different guidelines?
Leonie: It is certainly important to bear in mind what medicine you’re working with and then tailor the guidelines appropriately since the experiences vary in intensity, the type of in-session interaction and the kind of post-treatment support required depending on the medicine used. Furthermore, the theme of the session matters, too. As an example, if sexual issues are likely to arise, two therapists present and a recording of the sessions may provide more accountability.

How could the current positive hype around psychedelics impact patients and therapists?
Ian: There’s a risk in the current media hype for psychedelic therapy to be seen as a ‘one dose and you’re fixed forever’ treatment. It sets expectations too high, and, in the absence of legal treatments, people may opt to try the psychedelics themselves without appropriate support. 

Psychedelics are catalysts, not cures. In reality, when it comes to mental health a lot of the healing work happens afterwards.  It’s a long process that involves a lot of integration and support going forward. The focus should be more on the psychotherapy, not completely on the psychedelic aspect of the process. If this point isn’t made clear, the risk is that the treatments will be seen as ineffective, which would be a shame as there is huge potential in psychedelics.

How do participants’ opinions get heard through you?
Leonie: Participants who have been through the clinical trial setting are the ones most interested in our work, We raise awareness within organisations who run such trials and invite participants informally to join our efforts. Going forward, we want references to PsyPAN to be built into the treatment protocol so that participants can be seamly signposted to us and welcomes to participate if they choose to. 

Speaking at ICPR and other events where participants are present is another way of creating awareness of our work. We also help organisations put together a working or focus group, so participants can share their experiences and have a say in the way trial protocols are designed. 

Ian: As far as we know, there’s nobody doing exactly what we’re doing. If there are other such groups or networks, we will be delighted to connect with them and support each other. We’re all doing it for the greater good of people who are struggling with mental health conditions.

How do you view depression, as you were both treated for it.
Leonie: Depression is a disease of disconnection. In society we are disconnected in so many ways. Depression alerts us to a deep need to slow down, take deep rest and to reconnect: to Nature, to ourselves, to our feelings – all of them, including the painful ones. 

Ian: We live in a world where we’re atomized and isolated, and the pandemic only exacerbated that. We are raised to dismiss a large part of our emotional range as human beings. We try to deny the more challenging parts of ourselves and our histories. 

Leonie: Antidepressants are a powerful intervention when you are in an acute, overwhelming crisis. But they should be seen as a short-term, symptom management intervention. They should not be viewed as something that is taken indefinitely, as if depression was a terminal disease that you had to learn to live with, as they don’t just numb you to the negative emotions; they limit and numb you in many other ways, too. If you don’t deal with the underlying causes of your depression, the issues come up in a different way at a different time. 

Ian: Psychedelics work in the completely opposite way: they enable you to connect with your full range of emotions and learn to be comfortable with your fuller self. Psychedelics help you dig down to the roots of your depression and work out new ways to deal with difficult feelings within a natural container that is larger than just yourself. 

You mentioned several spiritual themes: connection to Nature, connection to something that is larger than us, the Cycle of Life. How does that sit with the current clinical, medical training?
Leonie: No participant or clinician starts the trial thinking clinically-diagnosed patients need more trees in their life… We must be careful not to be too reductionist – depression is not solely a function of neurochemistry. There needs to be some space for mystery, too. 

Ian: Psychedelics can engender deeply profound spiritual experiences, which can manifest in different ways; we must not be prescriptive as to the nature of the spiritual experience to be expected. Yet organisations who run the studies must be aware that these experiences do happen. 

Leonie: The concept of connectedness is a good place to start. Everyone can understand how being better connected to ourselves, each other and Nature is beneficial to all. It is definitely a point to bring to the discussion, otherwise we will be selling the psychedelic treatment short.

Hope or hype? Head of OPEN Foundation calls for caution in psychedelic renaissancE

Joost Breeksema is the director of the OPEN Foundation and one of the main initiators of the Interdisciplinary Conference on Psychedelic Research. ICPR 2022 will be held in Haarlem from 23-27 Sept

As the director of the OPEN Foundation – founded in 2006 to advance the scientific research of psychedelics – Joost Breeksema has usually found himself being one of the main promotors of psychiatric research into psychedelics and therapies. That has changed, he says:  “I find myself in a position of being somebody promoting more caution”.

“I think I still think that psychedelics have huge potential,” Breeksema says, “but I think it’s good to counterbalance this message a little bit and to have a proper balance between hype and hope.”

The OPEN director made his statement during the launch of PAREA, the Psychedelic Access And Research European Alliance, an association of European foundations and institutions advancing holistic and professional psychedelic research and therapy.

Breeksema commented in light of the recent psychedelic renaissance, which has brought renewed attention to the psychedelic field. Strong research results have shown the real efficacy of psychedelic therapy, but this has also spawned a world in which investment is luring, and potential risks of psychedelic therapy might be obscured. 

What the right balance is between hope and hype around psychedelic therapy, needs to be discussed, Breeksema says, because the need is dire: “There are many desperate patients out there. Between a quarter and a third of patients with mental disorders do not respond to conventional treatments. So there is a huge need for better and more effective treatments. But it’s also, I think, very important to remember that these are not magic bullets and there are interests.”

Professional field

The mix of patients with severe traumas and big expectations, the potential intenseness of the psychedelic experience, and the history of a black market involvement in the supply of many substances, make the need for safe, professional treatment a necessity: “When you ask patients… it’s hard work. People have challenging experiences, and these are vulnerable patients for the most part. These experiences can be powerful but also potentially destabilizing.” 

“These are not typical pharmaceutical drugs: It’s the experience that’s central, and that means people guiding patients through those experiences need to be properly trained. You need to be a mental health professional, but you do also need additional training.”

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How AI and language can help predict psychedelic treatment outcomes

Language is increasingly being used as a diagnostic tool in biomedical research and has recently begun to be leveraged in psychedelic research. It turns out analysing language through machine learning can help increase diagnostic accuracy and predict psychedelic treatment outcomes, which will play an important role in the future of psychedelic research.


Illustration: Anna Temczuk

Language as a diagnostic tool

Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung are arguably the most influential figures of the 20th century when it comes to psychological functioning and the human mind. Although their theories about the psyche eventually differed, they both considered language as a manifestation of the unconscious. Indeed, Freudian psychoanalysis proposed free association as a way of gaining access to unconscious processes, while Jungian psychology considered every act of speech as a psychic event, with each word carrying particular archetypal energies. Fast forward 100 years, innovations in biomedical science and technology have transformed language into a diagnostic tool for both affective and degenerative neuropathology, and language is increasingly being used as such in psychedelic research. 

Natural Language Processing, also known as NLP, is a field combining linguistics, computer science, and artificial intelligence. It applies computational techniques to the analysis and synthesis of natural language. One of the problems with natural language is that it often contains ambiguities in meaning, also known as semantic ambiguities, which are easily detectable by humans but not so much by computers. Luckily, models such as distributional semantics, count vectorisation and encoder-decoder modeling help decipher semantic ambiguities. Since its development, NLP has predominantly been used as an automation tool for google searches, spam email categorisation, voice recognition, and translations, but it is increasingly being used as a diagnostic tool in medicine. 

A few years ago, a team of researchers in Canada were able to identify linguistic features within narrative speech that were specific to Alzheimer’s Disease. Semantic impairment, acoustic abnormality, and syntactic impairment were all factors enabling the accurate identification of Alzheimer’s, based on patients’ short descriptions of a picture.

This led to the realisation that beyond its unconscious, psyche-revealing properties, natural language might also possess neuropathology-revealing properties. So what if language could be used as a biomarker for psychosis or affective disorders? More importantly, what if language could be used as a predictor of treatment outcome? It turns out these tools have already begun to be leveraged in psychedelic research.

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Around four years ago, a team of researchers from Buenos Aires University’s Applied Artificial Intelligence Lab and Imperial College London’s Psychedelic Research Group decided to test a combination of NLP and machine learning. They tested this combination both as a diagnostic tool for patients suffering from treatment-resistant depression, and as a predictor of treatment outcome following a psilocybin challenge. 

Participants first underwent a psychological interview known as an Autobiographical Memory Test, an interview used to assess the degree of specificity of autobiographical memory. This interview was analysed using an NLP method known as Emotional Analysis, which quantifies the emotional content of spoken or written text. The NLP output was then fed as input into a machine learning algorithm, known as a classifier, trained at recognising depressed patients. 

On the basis of emotional analysis and specifically the use of positive words, which were less frequently used in depressed patients compared to healthy controls, the classifier was able to differentiate between depressed patients and healthy controls with a mean accuracy of 82.85%, close to 15% better than the mean accuracy of general practitioners unassisted by screening tests.  

Accurate Predictions

Perhaps more impressive than its ability to differentiate between depressed patients and healthy controls, was the classifier’s ability to differentiate between treatment responders and non-responders. Based on the same parameters it had previously used to diagnose depressed patients (NLP output and positive word frequency), the classifier was able to predict which patients would respond to a psilocybin challenge and which would not. 

Only the patients identified as “responders” were given the psilocybin challenge, whereas the “non-responders” were removed from the treatment arm. This manoeuvre had the effect of improving overall treatment response by 34% compared to the original experiment.  

Last year, a team at Johns Hopkins University used a similar approach to predict changes in substance use following a psychedelic challenge. They recruited individuals who reported quitting or reducing a number of addictive drugs following a psychedelic experience, and asked them for a verbal narrative of the experience.

They used an NLP method known as Latent Semantic Analysis, which analyses the relationship between semantic structures across different texts, to derive topic models that described the psychedelic narratives. These topic models were fed as input into three different machine learning algorithms to predict long-term drug reduction. The machine learning algorithms had an average predictive accuracy of 65%, and additional analyses revealed between-group differences in psychedelic experience narratives based on the derived topic models.

John Hopkins’ semantic analysis of psychedelic narratives and Buenos Aires University’s use of machine learning to identify patients suffering from depression, are two early but powerful examples of the ways in which language can be leveraged in psychedelic research through new technology.

The combination of NLP and machine learning as methods to analyse language have reliably shown their value as both diagnostic and predictive tools, and can be used to optimise clinical trials. They allow for a more personalised treatment, whereby non-responders are spared the emotional rollercoaster of an acute psychedelic experience. 

Freudian psychoanalysis, Jungian psychology and NLP share the conception that hidden semantic structures within language are associated with underlying processes, whether psychological, social, or physiological. A century ago, language was the glass through which Freud saw the unconscious mind. Today, language analysed by machine learning may very well be one of the prisms through which we can come to understand the psychedelic experience.

References:

1. N.B. This is different from “Neuro-linguistic programming” (NLP), which is a form of psychotherapy developed in California in the 1970s, mainly used as a method of personal development by promoting skills including communication.

2. Fraser, K. C., Meltzer, J. A., & Rudzicz, F. (2016). Linguistic Features Identify Alzheimer’s Disease in Narrative Speech. Journal of Alzheimer’s disease : JAD, 49(2), 407–422

3. Carrillo, F., Sigman, M., Fernández Slezak, D., Ashton, P., Fitzgerald, L., Stroud, J., Nutt, D. J., & Carhart-Harris, R. L. (2018). Natural speech algorithm applied to baseline interview data can predict which patients will respond to psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression. Journal of affective disorders, 230, 84–86

4. Carey, M., Jones, K., Meadows, G., Sanson-Fisher, R., D’Este, C., Inder, K., Yoong, S. L., & Russell, G. (2014). Accuracy of general practitioner unassisted detection of depression. The Australian and New Zealand journal of psychiatry, 48(6), 571–578.

5. The original experiment consisted of a combination of psychotherapy and pharmacological treatment with psilocybin that resulted in 41% treatment response. By differentiating between treatment responders and non-responders this experiment resulted in 75% treatment response

6. Cox, D. J., Garcia-Romeu, A., & Johnson, M. W. (2021). Predicting changes in substance use following psychedelic experiences: natural language processing of psychedelic session narratives. The American journal of drug and alcohol abuse, 47(4), 444–454

The Way of the Psychonaut Vol. 1: Encyclopedia for Inner Journeys

The Way of the Psychonaut Vol. 1: Encyclopedia for Inner Journeys. Stanislav Grof. MAPS. ISBN: 9780998276595

Written in an easy, understandable tone, this comprehensive work is a tour de force works its way through the worlds of psychology and psychotherapy, Holotropic Breathwork, maps of the psyche, birth, sex, and death, psychospiritual rebirth, the roots of trauma, spiritual emergency and transpersonal experiences, karma and reincarnation, higher creativity, great art, and archetypes.

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Safety of ibogaine administration in detoxification of opioid-dependent individuals: a descriptive open-label observational study

Abstract

Background and aims: Ibogaine is an indole alkaloid used in rituals of the African Bwiti tribe. It is also used in non-medical settings to treat addiction. However, ibogaine has been linked to several deaths, mainly due to cardiac events called torsades des pointes preceded by QTc prolongation as well as other safety concerns. This study aimed to evaluate the cardiac, cerebellar and psychomimetic safety of ibogaine in patients with opioid use disorder.

Design: A descriptive open-label observational study.

Setting: Department of psychiatry in a university medical center, the Netherlands.

Participants: Patients with opioid use disorder (n = 14) on opioid maintenance treatment with a lasting wish for abstinence, who failed to reach abstinence with standard care.

Intervention and measurements: After conversion to morphine-sulphate, a single dose of ibogaine-HCl 10 mg/kg was administered and patients were monitored at regular intervals for at least 24 hours assessing QTc, blood pressure and heart rate, scale for the assessment and rating of ataxia (SARA) to assess cerebellar side effects and the delirium observation scale (DOS) to assess psychomimetic effects.

Findings: The maximum QTc (Fridericia) prolongation was on average 95ms (range 29-146ms). Fifty percent of subjects reached a QTc of over 500ms during the observation period. In six out 14 subjects prolongation above 450ms lasted beyond 24 hours after ingestion of ibogaine. No torsades des pointes were observed. Severe transient ataxia with inability to walk without support was seen in all patients. Withdrawal and psychomimetic effects were mostly well-tolerated and manageable (11/14 did not return to morphine within 24 hours, DOS scores remained below threshold).

Conclusions: This open-label observational study found that ibogaine treatment of patients with opioid use disorder can induce a clinically relevant but reversible QTc prolongation, bradycardia, and severe ataxia.

Knuijver, T., Schellekens, A., Belgers, M., Donders, R., van Oosteren, T., Kramers, K., & Verkes, R. (2022). Safety of ibogaine administration in detoxification of opioid-dependent individuals: a descriptive open-label observational study. Addiction (Abingdon, England), 117(1), 118–128. https://doi.org/10.1111/add.15448

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Risk assessment of ayahuasca use in a religious context: self-reported risk factors and adverse effects

Abstract

Objective: Whether for spiritual, recreational, or potential therapeutic use, interest in ayahuasca has grown remarkably. Ayahuasca’s main active substances are N,N-dimethyltryptamine and certain monoamine oxidase inhibitor β-carbolines. Possible drug interactions are a major concern, and research is lacking in this area. The objective of this study was to evaluate the safety of ritual ayahuasca use regarding adverse effects and risk factors.

Methods: In this cross-sectional study, ayahuasca users from a religious institution answered an online questionnaire about its safety. Adverse effects, safety measures, and possible risk factors (psychiatric diagnosis and medications) were investigated.

Results: The most frequent adverse effects among the 614 participants were transient gastrointestinal effects (nausea and vomiting). Fifty participants self-reported a psychiatric diagnosis (depression and anxiety were the most prevalent), and these participants experienced adverse effects more frequently. Psychiatric medication use was reported by 31 participants. No indication of increased adverse effects due to drug-drug interactions was found.

Conclusion: A minority of participants reported being very negatively affected by persistent adverse effects. Psychiatric medication use while participating in ayahuasca rituals was not associated with increased adverse effects. For the most part, the institution’s practices seem sufficient to prevent exacerbated reactions. Future studies may focus on negatively affected users.

Durante, Í., Dos Santos, R. G., Bouso, J. C., & Hallak, J. E. (2021). Risk assessment of ayahuasca use in a religious context: self-reported risk factors and adverse effects. Revista brasileira de psiquiatria (Sao Paulo, Brazil : 1999), 43(4), 362–369. https://doi.org/10.1590/1516-4446-2020-0913

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Effects of Psilocybin-Assisted Therapy on Major Depressive Disorder: A Randomized Clinical Trial

Abstract

Importance: Major depressive disorder (MDD) is a substantial public health burden, but current treatments have limited effectiveness and adherence. Recent evidence suggests that 1 or 2 administrations of psilocybin with psychological support produces antidepressant effects in patients with cancer and in those with treatment-resistant depression.

Objective: To investigate the effect of psilocybin therapy in patients with MDD.

Design, setting, and participants: This randomized, waiting list-controlled clinical trial was conducted at the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland. Adults aged 21 to 75 years with an MDD diagnosis, not currently using antidepressant medications, and without histories of psychotic disorder, serious suicide attempt, or hospitalization were eligible to participate. Enrollment occurred between August 2017 and April 2019, and the 4-week primary outcome assessments were completed in July 2019. A total of 27 participants were randomized to an immediate treatment condition group (n = 15) or delayed treatment condition group (waiting list control condition; n = 12). Data analysis was conducted from July 1, 2019, to July 31, 2020, and included participants who completed the intervention (evaluable population).

Interventions: Two psilocybin sessions (session 1: 20 mg/70 kg; session 2: 30 mg/70 kg) were given (administered in opaque gelatin capsules with approximately 100 mL of water) in the context of supportive psychotherapy (approximately 11 hours). Participants were randomized to begin treatment immediately or after an 8-week delay.

Main outcomes and measures: The primary outcome, depression severity was assessed with the GRID-Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (GRID-HAMD) scores at baseline (score of ≥17 required for enrollment) and weeks 5 and 8 after enrollment for the delayed treatment group, which corresponded to weeks 1 and 4 after the intervention for the immediate treatment group. Secondary outcomes included the Quick Inventory of Depressive Symptomatology-Self Rated (QIDS-SR).

Results: Of the randomized participants, 24 of 27 (89%) completed the intervention and the week 1 and week 4 postsession assessments. This population had a mean (SD) age of 39.8 (12.2) years, was composed of 16 women (67%), and had a mean (SD) baseline GRID-HAMD score of 22.8 (3.9). The mean (SD) GRID-HAMD scores at weeks 1 and 4 (8.0 [7.1] and 8.5 [5.7]) in the immediate treatment group were statistically significantly lower than the scores at the comparable time points of weeks 5 and 8 (23.8 [5.4] and 23.5 [6.0]) in the delayed treatment group. The effect sizes were large at week 5 (Cohen d = 2.5; 95% CI, 1.4-3.5; P < .001) and week 8 (Cohen d = 2.6; 95% CI, 1.5-3.7; P < .001). The QIDS-SR documented a rapid decrease in mean (SD) depression score from baseline to day 1 after session 1 (16.7 [3.5] vs 6.3 [4.4]; Cohen d = 2.6; 95% CI, 1.8-3.5; P < .001), which remained statistically significantly reduced through the week 4 follow-up (6.0 [5.7]; Cohen d = 2.3; 95% CI, 1.5-3.0; P < .001). In the overall sample, 17 participants (71%) at week 1 and 17 (71%) at week 4 had a clinically significant response to the intervention (≥50% reduction in GRID-HAMD score), and 14 participants (58%) at week 1 and 13 participants (54%) at week 4 were in remission (≤7 GRID-HAMD score).

Conclusions and relevance: Findings suggest that psilocybin with therapy is efficacious in treating MDD, thus extending the results of previous studies of this intervention in patients with cancer and depression and of a nonrandomized study in patients with treatment-resistant depression.

Trial registration: ClinicalTrials.gov Identifier: NCT03181529.

Davis, A. K., Barrett, F. S., May, D. G., Cosimano, M. P., Sepeda, N. D., Johnson, M. W., Finan, P. H., & Griffiths, R. R. (2021). Effects of Psilocybin-Assisted Therapy on Major Depressive Disorder: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA psychiatry, 78(5), 481–489. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2020.3285

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Naturalistic Use of Mescaline Is Associated with Self-Reported Psychiatric Improvements and Enduring Positive Life Changes

Abstract

Mescaline is a naturally occurring psychoactive alkaloid that has been used as a sacrament by Indigenous populations in spiritual ritual and healing ceremonies for millennia. Despite promising early preliminary research and favorable anecdotal reports, there is limited research investigating mescaline’s psychotherapeutic potential. We administered an anonymous online questionnaire to adults (N = 452) reporting use of mescaline in naturalistic settings about mental health benefits attributed to mescaline. We assessed respondents’ self-reported improvements in depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and alcohol and drug use disorders (AUD and DUD). Of the respondents reporting histories of these clinical conditions, most (68-86%) reported subjective improvement following their most memorable mescaline experience. Respondents who reported an improvement in their psychiatric conditions reported significantly higher ratings of acute psychological factors including mystical-type, psychological insight, and ego dissolution effects compared to those who did not report improvements (Cohen’s d range 0.7 – 1.5). Many respondents (35-50%) rated the mescaline experience as the single or top five most spiritually significant or meaningful experience(s) of their lives. Acute experiences of psychological insight during their mescaline experience were associated with increased odds of reporting improvement in depression, anxiety, AUD and DUD. Additional research is needed to corroborate these preliminary findings and to rigorously examine the efficacy of mescaline for psychiatric treatment in controlled, longitudinal clinical trials.

Agin-Liebes, G., Haas, T. F., Lancelotta, R., Uthaug, M. V., Ramaekers, J. G., & Davis, A. K. (2021). Naturalistic Use of Mescaline Is Associated with Self-Reported Psychiatric Improvements and Enduring Positive Life Changes. ACS pharmacology & translational science, 4(2), 543–552. https://doi.org/10.1021/acsptsci.1c00018

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Acute and Sustained Reductions in Loss of Meaning and Suicidal Ideation Following Psilocybin-Assisted Psychotherapy for Psychiatric and Existential Distress in Life-Threatening Cancer

Abstract

People with advanced cancer are at heightened risk of desire for hastened death (DHD), suicidal ideation (SI), and completed suicide. Loss of Meaning (LoM), a component of demoralization, can be elevated by a cancer diagnosis and predicts DHD and SI in this population. We completed a randomized controlled trial in which psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy (PAP) produced rapid and sustained improvements in depression, demoralization, and hopelessness in people with cancer. Converging epidemiologic and clinical trial findings suggests a potential antisuicidal effect of this treatment. To probe our hypothesis that PAP relieves SI through its beneficial impacts on depression and demoralization (LoM in particular), we performed secondary analyses assessing within- and between-group differences with regard to LoM and an SI composite score. Among participants with elevated SI at baseline, PAP was associated with within-group reductions in SI that were apparent as early as 8 h and persisted for 6.5 months postdosing. PAP also produced large reductions in LoM from baseline that were apparent 2 weeks after treatment and remained significant and robust at the 6.5 month and 3.2 and 4.5 year follow-ups. Exploratory analyses support our hypothesis and suggest that PAP may be an effective antisuicidal intervention following a cancer diagnosis due to its positive impact on hopelessness and demoralization and its effects on meaning-making in particular. These preliminary results implicate psilocybin treatment as a potentially effective alternative to existing antidepressant medications in patients with cancer that are also suicidal, and warrant further investigation in participants with elevated levels of depression and suicidality.

Ross, S., Agin-Liebes, G., Lo, S., Zeifman, R. J., Ghazal, L., Benville, J., Franco Corso, S., Bjerre Real, C., Guss, J., Bossis, A., & Mennenga, S. E. (2021). Acute and Sustained Reductions in Loss of Meaning and Suicidal Ideation Following Psilocybin-Assisted Psychotherapy for Psychiatric and Existential Distress in Life-Threatening Cancer. ACS pharmacology & translational science, 4(2), 553–562. https://doi.org/10.1021/acsptsci.1c00020

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