OPEN Foundation

Psychotherapy

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.

In loving memory of ann shulgin

Ann Shulgin, the wife of renowned chemist genius Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin, passed away at age 91 on July 9. Both were extraordinary human beings and pioneers in the field of psychedelic research, particularly due to their significant contribution in the development and therapeutic use of (novel) psychedelic compounds. To honor both, we gladly share some of her history and both their legacy.

Laura Ann Gotlieb was born in Wellington, New Zealand on March 22, 1931, and shortly thereafter lived an extraordinary life, spending her time in various places around the world, including Italy, Cuba, Canada, and finally the Bay Area in the US when the Beatnik generation was in full swing. She got married, and divorced, three times and then met her fourth husband, Sasha Shulgin, in the Fall of 1978. After three years of spending time together, they got married in Sasha’s backyard during a surprise ceremony by an official of the Drug Enforcement Administration. Yes, the DEA. 

Ann used to work as a medical transcriber in San Francisco and probably became familiar with Jungian psychology through her third husband who was a Jungian psychiatrist. It was only later after marrying Sasha that she got involved in the development of novel psychedelic compounds. During this period, she started practicing psychedelic-assisted therapy in conjunction with MDMA or 2C-B at a time when these substances were still legal. She became a strong adherent of Jungian psychoanalysis and believed that psychedelics have huge potential for self-actualization when used within such a framework. 

The development and various discoveries of other psychedelics together led to the authoring of two books: PIHKAL: A Chemical Love Story and TIHKAL: The Continuation. Respectively, these titles are  acronyms for “Phenethylamines/Tryptamines I Have Known and Loved.” Partly fictional autobiography and partly considered “pretty much cookbooks on how to make illegal drugs” by the DEA, both Ann and Sasha were filled with passion and courage to describe no more than over 179 different psychedelic compounds – all with the main goal of releasing information about psychedelic compounds and its therapeutic properties to the public. Psychedelics, they both believed, were there as valuable tools for human beings to explore and self-actualize. Ann briefly appears on a recent episode of Hamilton’s pharmacopeia, where we see that she continued to live in the house that contains the original lab of Sasha.

We are forever grateful for their contribution to the development and therapeutic use of (novel) psychedelic compounds and aim to continue their legacy. 

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.”

Get €100 off on all tickets by using the code OPENBLOG100

LSD Psychotherapy: The Healing Potential of Psychedelic Medicine

LSD Psychotherapy: The Healing Potential of Psychedelic Medicine. Stanislav Grof. Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). ISBN: 978-0979862205

Drawing on his 1960’s studies of LSD-assisted psychotherapy, Grof outlines a new cartography of the human mind, one which accounts for experiences such as shamanic trance, near-death experiences and altered states of consciousness. This vision is also the foundation for Dr. Grof’s revolutionary new Holotropic Breathwork.

Buy this book through bookdepository.com and support the OPEN Foundation

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.

Buy this book through bookdepository.com and support the OPEN Foundation

The Subjective Effects of Psychedelics Are Necessary for Their Enduring Therapeutic Effects

Abstract

Classic psychedelics produce altered states of consciousness that individuals often interpret as meaningful experiences. Across a number of human studies, when the participant-rated intensity of the overall drug effects are statistically controlled for, certain subjective effects predict therapeutic and other desirable outcomes. Underlying neurobiological mechanisms are likely necessary but not sufficient to confer full and enduring beneficial effects. We propose that the subjective effects of psychedelics are necessary for their enduring beneficial effects and that these subjective effects account for the majority of their benefit.

Yaden, D. B., & Griffiths, R. R. (2020). The Subjective Effects of Psychedelics Are Necessary for Their Enduring Therapeutic Effects. ACS pharmacology & translational science, 4(2), 568–572. https://doi.org/10.1021/acsptsci.0c00194

Link to full text

Truffle therapy in the Netherlands is running ahead of the science

The promising results of psychedelic treatments in small scale clinical trials are feeding an emergent health and wellness industry around these substances. The Netherlands, where psilocybin truffles remain unregulated, has become fertile ground for entrepreneurs aiming to position themselves at the cutting-edge of the psychedelic medicine market. Even though most of these psychedelic retreats cater to healthy participants, an increasing number of companies are planning to offer truffle sessions as psychedelic therapy to psychiatric patients. At the current stage, when scientific evidence proves promising but not yet conclusive, researchers are worried about the risks of commercial providers running ahead of the ongoing research. Should companies tread more carefully and let clinical researchers take the lead in the development of psychedelic therapy?

ICPR 2022 will feature some of the biggest names in psychedelic science. Livestream tickets to ICPR 2022 are available and include a three-month membership to the OPEN Foundation.

Psilocybin in the Netherlands

Psilocybin is a controlled substance in the Netherlands and the possession and sale of any species of psilocybin containing mushrooms is forbidden. However, this regulation does not apply to truffles, given that these are not strictly mushrooms but a different part of the fungus. This legal loophole has allowed the spread of psychedelic retreat centers offering truffle ceremonies for self-development or spiritual purposes.

Even though truffles qualify as a legal food in the Netherlands, they cannot be advertised as a medical treatment. The Dutch Health and Youth Care Inspectorate (IGJ) states that truffles may fall under the regulatory scope of the Medicines Act if medical claims are made. “In that case, we qualify the truffles as a medicine, for which no trade permit has been granted in the Netherlands”, an IGJ spokesperson declared.

Most entrepreneurs, aware of the existing regulation, avoid making explicit medical claims when advertising their services and try to use terms like “inner healing” and “personal development” instead. Many also warn that their ceremonies are not meant to substitute medical or psychotherapeutic care and make an effort to exclude clients with mental diagnoses and possible physical risks from participating through careful health screening.

This is, however, not always the case. The clinical director of a new truffle clinic recently declared to Dutch media: “We administer truffles to people in order to make them feel better and to overcome psychological disorders such as depression, anxiety and stress”. Others openly claim to provide “psychedelic-assisted therapy” on their websites and display the available scientific evidence to illustrate its efficacy in the treatment of depression, addiction or PTSD. We asked Nick (whose real name is not disclosed) about the apparent targeting of mental health patients on his retreat center’s website. “We are not pretending to treat or cure PTSD”, he assured, “we are acknowledging that there are people who have PTSD and that those clients that we have received (and not targeted) had very beneficial experiences”.

The hype around psychedelics is sparking a race among startups to become pioneers of a new therapeutic or wellness market, the boundaries are not always clear. But the emergence of truffle therapy is not just about opportunistic entrepreneurship. The mainstreaming of psychedelics is also bringing some of the underground therapists to the surface and from their perspective, there might not be meaningful reasons to wait for approval and regulation. Peter (whose real name is not disclosed) has conducted truffle therapy for the last eight years and more recently decided to start advertising their services online. “Back then we also thought we were moving too fast but people were really searching for this. We just couldn’t wait. Regulation can be helpful, but for a lot of us who already walked that path it’s not that great, especially for the ones who believe more in alternative therapies”.

The lack of formal regulation governing the profession has led some psychedelic guides in the Netherlands to found the Guild of Guides. This professional association is developing its own ethical codes in order to ensure best practices during psychedelic sessions. Peter also acknowledges the importance of the guild in the self-regulation of psychedelic facilitators. When it comes to offering therapy, however, their guidelines are unequivocal: “Guides do not claim to be psychedelic therapists nor offer ‘therapeutic’ services when they lack the appropriate accreditation.”

Scientists’ call for caution

A number of Dutch researchers and therapists are currently working on trials investigating the safety and efficacy of psilocybin for patients with treatment-resistant depression. They are concerned about commercial providers rushing to open up the market even before the scientific evidence is established. Clinical psychologist Jan Mars, therapist at the University Medical Centre Groningen (UMCG), says: “I am not a supporter of this practice because we are still doing research right now and you don’t want to run ahead of the science”. Joost Breeksema, researcher at the UMCG and director of the OPEN Foundation, echoed similar concerns: “The main problem is that we don’t know yet if this can be done safely and if so, which patients might benefit and which may be more at risk. And we’re only talking about the treatment of depression, where clinical research with psilocybin is relatively advanced. Offering psilocybin truffles to treat PTSD is even more problematic, not just because of the nature of this disorder, but also because we lack solid research. I understand the need for better treatments, and the impatience of patients who’ve sometimes suffered for decades, but it’s unethical, unwise and irresponsible to experiment blindly with these powerful treatments.”

It is important to remark that most scientists and therapists see no harm in conducting truffle ceremonies with experienced guides outside the medical realm. Renske Blom, psychiatrist at GGZ Centraal and therapist at UMC Utrecht, noted: “Truffles are legally available in the Netherlands so they can be and are being offered for spiritual care, wellbeing and self-improvement”.

While there are signs to be hopeful about the potential of psychedelics for the future of mental health treatments, research has not yet offered conclusive evidence that would warrant safe and efficacious provision of psilocybin therapy. Two psilocybin trials so far have shown significant and long-term improvements for depression. However, these trials lacked placebo controls and the samples were pretty small. Several ongoing multisite trials with hundreds of participants will be able to give more reliable evidence about the therapeutic value of psilocybin. Nonetheless, these studies have not yet been completed and experts warn that it is precisely at this stage of drug development where most new pharmaceuticals fail. In the case of PTSD, larger studies are proving that MDMA-assisted psychotherapy may be useful, but not a single clinical trial has investigated psilocybin for this indication yet. In general, there are still a number of incognitas around safety, short- and long-term efficacy, relapse rates and the optimal amount of integration sessions.

The mainstreaming of psychedelics causes challenges for the psychedelic field.

One of the main concerns of researchers relates to the qualifications and therapeutic experience of these truffle providers. This is a complicated issue given that clinicians and researchers are still debating the adequate standards and training requirements for the certification of future psychedelic therapists. Some companies currently offering truffle therapy have a team of professionals with a background in mental health. In other cases, the psychotherapeutic and medical credentials of guides and their experience with disorders such as PTSD or depression are dubious.

The exposure of these sensitive populations to the intensity of the psychedelic experience can be risky if guides are not able to respond to the particular needs of psychiatric patients. In working with depression and psychedelics, Jan Mars emphasizes that “supporting a psychedelic journey is a humbling experience. You don’t know what is going to happen during the session. You can expect anything to happen,” and therefore, he adds, “It’s important that therapists know how to provide a safe environment. We still need much more experience and knowledge about how to work with patients who suffer from chronic psychological conditions. Trauma often lies beneath the surface and pops up during a session with psychedelics”. In regard to trauma therapy with these substances, Joost Breeksema adds: “Patients may relive traumatic moments, completely dissociate or become overwhelmed with fear and anxiety. This can be hard to handle even for an experienced therapist. Now imagine what happens with well-intended, but under-qualified and unprepared guides”.

Although these treatments are known to be generally safe in terms of toxicology and no serious adverse events are commonly reported in trials, their safety profile resides precisely in the close psychotherapeutic support and monitoring performed before, during and after psilocybin administration. Jan Mars hopes that in future clinical practice, “psychedelic journeys will be embedded in a safe and trusting therapeutic environment. These journeys are no magic bullets.”

In general, truffle providers understand the concerns of scientists, but they feel that the benefits of psilocybin treatment outweigh its risks. According to the clinical director of a truffle clinic, clients with depression may be thinking: “Damned! Science says that this can help me. It is not yet approved but there are places where it can be done safely so I am going to try”. From his own experience guiding sessions, Peter concluded that: “It all comes down to a balance between safety and effectiveness. We are all trying to find out, but at the moment psychedelic sessions do more to help people than to harm them”.

For psychiatric patients for whom other treatments have failed, this call for patience and caution may be difficult to accept. At the same time, they should be able to make informed decisions. Given the current exclusion criteria in psychedelic trials, researchers discourage patients with a history of personality or psychotic disorders from seeking these treatments at all. Jan Mars sends a piece of advice to those other patients without complex comorbidities who, despite potential risks, decide to seek truffle therapy: “Involve a loved one in the journey that you are about to embark on, for support before and after. Do some research on who is guiding it, what the setting will be like and whether there is enough time dedicated to the preparation of the session. Make sure that you feel you can trust the guide. If you have doubts, then there is probably a good reason for it, and it might not be a good idea.”

The relation between retreat and research

Truffle therapists in the Netherlands definitely have clinical research on psilocybin as their reference of best practice. Nick explained: “We frame it in a therapeutic setting to optimize positive outcomes and keep clients safe”. Nonetheless, researchers remain sceptical about the degree to which truffle providers actually manage to screen out participants with mental diagnoses or maintain high standards of care. To be fair, even some research protocols could be criticized for including the minimal amount of preparation and integration sessions.

The biggest challenges for psychedelic science today

Besides the potential harm to patients, researchers also seem to be worried about the future of research itself. The controversial history of the field has made psychedelic scientists generally cautious about avoiding any kind of social backlash. An unfortunate incident with a patient could set back the progress made in the last years. Renske Blom added: “If a major incident happens in the context of these therapy sessions, inside or outside clinical trials, it could influence upcoming research as well”.

While acknowledging the importance of further research, Nick also stressed that “truffles were never researched. They cannot say that psilocybin session guides are too early. Actually, the research is late because more people trip on naturals than on lab-grade psilocybin”. Bearing in mind the likely pharmacological difference between the synthetic compound and whole truffles, the current research agenda may not represent the interests of truffle therapists. In other words, it is unclear whether research with pure psilocybin would ever be considered valid evidence to justify their practice. Joost Breeksema said: “We don’t really know what truffles contain because they haven’t been standardized or analyzed in the laboratory, but I do think that if psilocybin goes through the approval process, it is likely that people and investors will get interested in the whole product as well.”

Despite the rather marginal position of truffles in current research, some investigators have realized the potential role that the retreat ecosystem can play in psychedelic science. In collaboration with retreat centers, several research projects have administered questionnaires to participants to learn more about the effects of these substances and their ritual use on healthy people. These centers could also become a place where all kinds of alternative models of psychedelic care can develop. The rigid regulatory and scientific frameworks within which researchers operate may limit the possible treatment conditions. In contrast, retreats offer the chance to explore new experimental protocols such as group sessions or natural settings. Joost Breeksema said: “The retreats may offer an infrastructure that is better suited to the psychedelic experience than clinical hospital settings”.

Nick is enthusiastic about future collaborations: “We want to set up research at our centers and we would love to count on scientific organizations, so we can actually build up the science needed and move beyond this internal dialogue about truffle therapy.” Joost Breeksema adds: “If they do proper data collection and analysis, they can contribute to the body of knowledge about the potential effects and risks of psychedelics. There are definitely options for collaboration but it has to be done judiciously and cautiously.”

The medicalization of psilocybin appears to raise tensions among different stakeholders in the psychedelic field. In the eyes of researchers, the underground therapy scene and the booming industry around psychedelic medicine may entail risks for patients and for the public image of ongoing research. Hopefully, future collaborations between retreat centers and research teams may offer a way forward to generate the evidence needed for an eventual regulation of the medical, as well as the non-medical uses of psilocybin truffles. However, at this stage, the open commercialization of psychedelic therapy to potentially vulnerable patients may be an unwise step ahead.

Written by Alberto Cantizani López
Art by Anna Temczuk
*The names of all informants involved in the commercial provision of truffles as therapy have been omitted or replaced by pseudonyms

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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Trial of Psilocybin versus Escitalopram for Depression

Abstract

Background: Psilocybin may have antidepressant properties, but direct comparisons between psilocybin and established treatments for depression are lacking.

Methods: In a phase 2, double-blind, randomized, controlled trial involving patients with long-standing, moderate-to-severe major depressive disorder, we compared psilocybin with escitalopram, a selective serotonin-reuptake inhibitor, over a 6-week period. Patients were assigned in a 1:1 ratio to receive two separate doses of 25 mg of psilocybin 3 weeks apart plus 6 weeks of daily placebo (psilocybin group) or two separate doses of 1 mg of psilocybin 3 weeks apart plus 6 weeks of daily oral escitalopram (escitalopram group); all the patients received psychological support. The primary outcome was the change from baseline in the score on the 16-item Quick Inventory of Depressive Symptomatology-Self-Report (QIDS-SR-16; scores range from 0 to 27, with higher scores indicating greater depression) at week 6. There were 16 secondary outcomes, including QIDS-SR-16 response (defined as a reduction in score of >50%) and QIDS-SR-16 remission (defined as a score of ≤5) at week 6.

Results: A total of 59 patients were enrolled; 30 were assigned to the psilocybin group and 29 to the escitalopram group. The mean scores on the QIDS-SR-16 at baseline were 14.5 in the psilocybin group and 16.4 in the escitalopram group. The mean (±SE) changes in the scores from baseline to week 6 were -8.0±1.0 points in the psilocybin group and -6.0±1.0 in the escitalopram group, for a between-group difference of 2.0 points (95% confidence interval [CI], -5.0 to 0.9) (P = 0.17). A QIDS-SR-16 response occurred in 70% of the patients in the psilocybin group and in 48% of those in the escitalopram group, for a between-group difference of 22 percentage points (95% CI, -3 to 48); QIDS-SR-16 remission occurred in 57% and 28%, respectively, for a between-group difference of 28 percentage points (95% CI, 2 to 54). Other secondary outcomes generally favored psilocybin over escitalopram, but the analyses were not corrected for multiple comparisons. The incidence of adverse events was similar in the trial groups.

Conclusions: On the basis of the change in depression scores on the QIDS-SR-16 at week 6, this trial did not show a significant difference in antidepressant effects between psilocybin and escitalopram in a selected group of patients. Secondary outcomes generally favored psilocybin over escitalopram, but the analyses of these outcomes lacked correction for multiple comparisons. Larger and longer trials are required to compare psilocybin with established antidepressants.

Carhart-Harris, R., Giribaldi, B., Watts, R., Baker-Jones, M., Murphy-Beiner, A., Murphy, R., Martell, J., Blemings, A., Erritzoe, D., & Nutt, D. J. (2021). Trial of Psilocybin versus Escitalopram for Depression. The New England journal of medicine, 384(15), 1402–1411. https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMoa2032994

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Hallucinogenic/psychedelic 5HT2A receptor agonists as rapid antidepressant therapeutics: Evidence and mechanisms of action

Abstract

Major depressive disorder (MDD) is among the most prevalent mental health disorders worldwide, and it is associated with a reduced quality of life and enormous costs to health care systems. Available drug treatments show low-to-moderate response in most patients, with almost a third of patients being non-responders (treatment-resistant). Furthermore, most currently available medications need several weeks to achieve therapeutic effects, and the long-term use of these drugs is often associated with significant unwanted side effects and resultant reductions in treatment compliance. Therefore, more effective, safer, and faster-acting antidepressants with enduring effects are needed. Together with ketamine, psychedelics (or classic or serotoninergic hallucinogens) such as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), psilocybin, and ayahuasca are among the few compounds with recent human evidence of fast-acting antidepressant effects. Several studies in the 1950s to 1970s reported antidepressive and anxiolytic effects of these drugs, which are being confirmed by modern trials (LSD, one trial; psilocybin, five trials; ayahuasca, two trials). The effects of these drugs appear to be produced primarily by their agonism at serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine, 5-HT) receptors, especially the 5-HT2A receptor. Considering the overall burden of MDD and the necessity of new therapeutic options, the promising (but currently limited) evidence of safety and efficacy of psychedelics has encouraged the scientific community to explore more fully their beneficial effects in MDD.

Dos Santos, R. G., Hallak, J. E., Baker, G., & Dursun, S. (2021). Hallucinogenic/psychedelic 5HT2A receptor agonists as rapid antidepressant therapeutics: Evidence and mechanisms of action. Journal of psychopharmacology (Oxford, England), 35(4), 453–458. https://doi.org/10.1177/0269881120986422

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