OPEN Foundation

L. Mertens

Classical Psychedelics as Therapeutics in Psychiatry – Current Clinical Evidence and Potential Therapeutic Mechanisms in Substance Use and Mood Disorders

Abstract

Classical psychedelics, primarily psilocybin and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), have been used and extensively studied in Western medicine as part of substance-assisted psychotherapy in the 1950s and 1960s. Modern clinical research is currently gaining momentum and provides new evidence for the safety and efficacy of classical psychedelics (primarily psilocybin, but also LSD and ayahuasca) in the treatment of different psychiatric conditions, including substance use and mood disorders.In this review article, we outline common pathological mechanisms of substance use disorders (SUD) and unipolar depression. Next, the current literature on the effects of psychedelics is summarized in order to generate hypotheses regarding their potential therapeutic mechanisms of action in treating these psychiatric conditions. Finally, we review and discuss clinical trials published since 2011 investigating the effects of psychedelics in SUD and depression.While results from those modern clinical trials are promising, most of them do not meet the methodological requirements to allow firm conclusions on the clinical efficacy of psychedelics. Larger, blinded, randomized controlled trials (RCT) with clearly defined patient groups and well-defined primary endpoints are needed. Additionally, the therapeutic mechanisms of classical psychedelics are currently unknown. This review presents hypotheses derived from preclinical and human studies that need to be tested in future trials to better understand the clinical potential of psychedelic substances in modern psychiatry.

Mertens, L. J., & Preller, K. H. (2021). Classical Psychedelics as Therapeutics in Psychiatry – Current Clinical Evidence and Potential Therapeutic Mechanisms in Substance Use and Mood Disorders. Pharmacopsychiatry, 54(4), 176–190. https://doi.org/10.1055/a-1341-1907

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Post-Psychedelic Reductions in Experiential Avoidance Are Associated With Decreases in Depression Severity and Suicidal Ideation

Abstract

Psychedelic therapy shows promise as a novel intervention for a wide range of mental health concerns but its therapeutic action is incompletely understood. In line with acceptance and commitment therapy’s (ACT’s) transdiagnostic model, qualitative research has suggested that reductions in experiential avoidance are an important component of therapeutic outcomes associated with psychedelics. However, limited research has quantitatively explored the association between decreases in experiential avoidance and therapeutic outcomes associated with psychedelics. Therefore, in two prospective studies, using convenience samples of individuals with plans to use a psychedelic, we explored the impact of psychedelic use on experiential avoidance, depression severity, and suicidal ideation, as well as relationships between changes in these outcomes. Participants (Study 1, N=104; Study 2, N=254) completed self-report questionnaires of depression severity, suicidal ideation, and experiential avoidance: 1) before using a psychedelic (in ceremonial and non-ceremonial contexts), as well as 2) 2-weeks and 3) 4-weeks after psychedelic use. Across both studies, repeated measures ANOVAs indicated significant decreases in experiential avoidance, depression severity, and suicidal ideation after psychedelic use. Furthermore, decreases in experiential avoidance were significantly associated with decreases in depression severity and suicidal ideation. These results suggest that psychedelics may lead to significant decreases in experiential avoidance, depression severity, and suicidal ideation. Additionally, these findings imply that reduced experiential avoidance may be a transdiagnostic mechanism mediating treatment success within psychedelic therapy. We conclude that integrating psychedelics with psychotherapeutic interventions that target experiential avoidance (e.g. ACT) may enhance therapeutic outcomes.

Zeifman, R. J., Wagner, A. C., Watts, R., Kettner, H., Mertens, L. J., & Carhart-Harris, R. L. (2020). Post-Psychedelic Reductions in Experiential Avoidance Are Associated With Decreases in Depression Severity and Suicidal Ideation. Frontiers in psychiatry, 11, 782. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2020.00782

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Psilocybin and LSD Have No Long-Lasting Effects in an Animal Model of Alcohol Relapse

Abstract

For most psychiatric disorders, including alcohol use disorder (AUD), approved pharmacological treatments are limited in their effectiveness, and new drugs that can easily be translated into the clinic are needed. Currently, great hope lies in the potential of psychedelics to effectively treat AUD. The primary hypothesis is that a single session of psychedelic-guided psychotherapy can restore normal brain function in AUD individuals and thereby reduce the risk of relapse in the long run. Here we applied three different treatment schedules with psilocybin/LSD in order to investigate relapse-like drinking in the alcohol deprivation effect (ADE) model. In contrast to the primary hypothesis, psychedelics had no long-lasting effects on the ADE in male and female rats, neither when administered in a high dosage regime that is comparable to the one used in clinical studies, nor in a chronic microdosing scheme. Only sub-chronic treatment with psilocybin produced a short-lasting anti-relapse effect. However, it is not a translatable treatment option to give psychedelics sub-chronically for relapse prevention. In conclusion, our results in the ADE model do not support the hypothesis that microdosing or high doses of psychedelic reduce relapse behavior. This conclusion has to be confirmed by applying other animal models of AUD. It could also well be that animal models of AUD might be unable to fully capture the therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs and that only future large-scale clinical trials will be able to demonstrate the efficacy of psychedelics as a new treatment option for AUD.

Meinhardt, M. W., Güngör, C., Skorodumov, I., Mertens, L. J., & Spanagel, R. (2020). Psilocybin and LSD have no long-lasting effects in an animal model of alcohol relapse. Neuropsychopharmacology, 1-9., https://doi.org/10.1038/s41386-020-0694-z
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Learning to Let Go: A Cognitive-Behavioral Model of How Psychedelic Therapy Promotes Acceptance

Abstract

The efficacy of psychedelic-assisted therapies for mental disorders has been attributed to the lasting change from experiential avoidance to acceptance that these treatments appear to facilitate. This article presents a conceptual model that specifies potential psychological mechanisms underlying such change, and that shows substantial parallels between psychedelic therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy: We propose that in the carefully controlled context of psychedelic therapy as applied in contemporary clinical research, psychedelic-induced belief relaxation can increase motivation for acceptance via operant conditioning, thus engendering episodes of relatively avoidance-free exposure to greatly intensified private events. Under these unique learning conditions, relaxed avoidance-related beliefs can be exposed to corrective information and become revised accordingly, which may explain long-term increases in acceptance and corresponding reductions in psychopathology. Open research questions and implications for clinical practice are discussed.

Wolff, M., Evens, R., Mertens, L. J., Koslowski, M., Betzler, F., Gründer, G., & Jungaberle, H. (2020). Learning to Let Go: A Cognitive-Behavioral Model of How Psychedelic Therapy Promotes Acceptance. Frontiers in Psychiatry11, 5.; 10.3389/fpsyt.2020.00005
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Therapeutic mechanisms of psilocybin: Changes in amygdala and prefrontal functional connectivity during emotional processing after psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression

Abstract

BACKGROUND:

Psilocybin has shown promise as a treatment for depression but its therapeutic mechanisms are not properly understood. In contrast to the presumed actions of antidepressants, we recently found increased amygdala responsiveness to fearful faces one day after open-label treatment with psilocybin (25 mg) in 19 patients with treatment-resistant depression, which correlated with treatment efficacy.

AIMS:

Aiming to further unravel the therapeutic mechanisms of psilocybin, the present study extends this basic activation analysis. We hypothesised changed amygdala functional connectivity, more precisely decreased amygdala-ventromedial prefrontal cortex functional connectivity, during face processing after treatment with psilocybin.

METHODS:

Psychophysiological interaction analyses were conducted on functional magnetic resonance imaging data from a classic face/emotion perception task, with the bilateral amygdala and ventromedial prefrontal cortex time-series as physiological regressors. Average parameter estimates (beta weights) of significant clusters were correlated with clinical outcomes at one week.

RESULTS:

Results showed decreased ventromedial prefrontal cortex-right amygdala functional connectivity during face processing post- (versus pre-) treatment; this decrease was associated with levels of rumination at one week. This effect was driven by connectivity changes in response to fearful and neutral (but not happy) faces. Independent whole-brain analyses also revealed a post-treatment increase in functional connectivity between the amygdala and ventromedial prefrontal cortex to occipital-parietal cortices during face processing.

CONCLUSION:

These results are consistent with the idea that psilocybin therapy revives emotional responsiveness on a neural and psychological level, which may be a key treatment mechanism for psychedelic therapy. Future larger placebo-controlled studies are needed to examine the replicability of the current findings.

Mertens, L. J., Wall, M. B., Roseman, L., Demetriou, L., Nutt, D. J., & Carhart-Harris, R. L. (2020). Therapeutic mechanisms of psilocybin: Changes in amygdala and prefrontal functional connectivity during emotional processing after psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 10.1177/0269881119895520
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