Joost Breeksema, director of the OPEN Foundation, made an appearance on Tuesday’s episode of Dutch talkshow OP1. The conversation delved into the use of psychedelics in psychiatry. Retired professional cyclist Thomas Dekker explained how he used magic truffles to fight his depression after leaving the sport. Joost joined the table as an expert on therapeutic applications of psychedelics and a proponent of a programmatic research and implementation programme.
With the attendance of Dutch Minister of Health, Ernst Kuipers, the discussion shed light on the therapeutic applications of psychedelics and the importance of more research in this field. Minister Kuipers expressed his enthusiasm for the ongoing research and thanked Joost for showing him the work being done at the University Medical Centre in Groningen, stating that it was very impressive.
During the conversation, Joost emphasised the importance of further large-scale research, regulatory frameworks and proper education of the public in order to protect vulnerable people in society. After the show he stated: “Although there isn’t enough time in a talkshow to convey all the nuances of this subject, it was still very encouraging to receive support from unexpected sources such as a professional athlete, the minister and the broadcasting company. The use of magic truffles to treat depression, as discussed by Thomas Dekker, still is a grey area that requires clinical testing and oversight before being approved for treatment.”
Minister Kuipers also publicly announced the establishment of a new state commission which aims to provide advice on the status of MDMA within the context of public health and the advantages and disadvantages of medicinal use.
It is a promising development that a topic as significant as the use of psychedelics in psychiatry was discussed on one of the Netherlands’ largest talkshows, with over 1.8 million viewers tuning in. This discussion has the potential to reduce the stigma associated with the use of illicit drugs in psychotherapy and encourages further research and exploration of therapeutic applications of psychedelics. We hope that this conversation will lead to more progress and support for scientific research in this area, ultimately benefiting those who suffer from mental illness.
On Monday, March 6th 2023, the report ‘Therapeutic applications of psychedelics’was presented to Dutch minister Ernst Kuipers of the ministry department Health, Well-being, and Sport. Joost Breeksema, executive director of the OPEN Foundation and co-author of the report, was one of the organisers of this event that took place at the University Medical Centre Groningen (UMCG). The report discusses the current state of the therapeutic applications of psychedelics and details the various opportunities, challenges, and recommendations regarding research and implementation of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy in health care.
A Dutch version of this blog post can be found here.
It is estimated that approximately 200,000 individuals in the Netherlands suffer from severe psychiatric disorders such as treatment-resistant depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, despite currently available treatment in healthcare. Last year Dutch minister Kuipers was already positive about the potential therapeutic application of psychedelics within this group of patients. At the University Medical Centre Groningen, Kuipers was further informed regarding the current state of psychedelics and talked to researchers, therapists, and patients. Similar to last year, Kuipers has shown approval and enthusiasm regarding psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy (PAT).The report ‘Therapeutic applications of psychedelics’ was presented to Kuipers during a mini-symposium at UMCG by managing director of ZonMw, Véronique Timmerhuis. ZonMw is a Dutch organisation that subsidises scientific research to develop and innovate healthcare. The report is written by professor of psychiatry Robert Schoevers, researcher and OPEN executive director Joost Breeksema, and neuroscientist Rutger Boesjes, commissioned by ZonMw.
The report describes the current state of affairs regarding PAT, including the various target populations that could be eligible to receive this particular treatment, but also the various opportunities, barriers, and challenges regarding scientific research and the ultimate implementation of PAT. Furthermore, it offers several recommendations, such as a national research program that could be able to facilitate fast, efficient, and coordinated knowledge developments within the current rapidly developing field. Finally, the report focuses on the development of accredited education institutes to secure the quality of PAT.
Joost Breeksema mentioned after the mini-symposium that “it is very promising to see so much interest in this subject: from ZonMw, the political arena, and from the top of the ministry department of Health, Well-being, and Sport. Similarly, Erwin Krediet, chair of Stitching OPEN, was present during the mini-symposium and said “it was an absolute milestone.” Krediet additionally added that “it was impressive to see how quickly the attitude towards psychedelics is changing – politicians and employees of the ministry were talking about psychedelics in a way that suggests there is not that much stigma left regarding the therapeutic use of these substances.”
Breeksema also gave a brief presentation towards the audience. He talked about how since the founding of OPEN foundation in 2007, a lot has changed: “attention towards psychedelics is generally positive. Not only between scientists, psychologists, and psychiatrists, but also in the media. These messages are received by a lot of patients currently suffering from a severe psychiatric disorder. However, it is very rare for these individuals to receive treatment other than enrolling in a clinical trial with psychedelics. This development increases the risk of patients seeking care outside regular healthcare or self-experimentation with psychedelics, which in turn increases the risk for incidents and adverse events.
The field is making significant and rapid developments in the past two years. For instance, there are tens of millions of dollars in investments and numerous studies being conducted by the pharmaceutical industry. It is highly likely that different types of psychedelics will be registered as approved medication in the upcoming years. At the same time, an important point of consideration is that we develop the necessary expertise and therapists in order to professionally administer these substances and provide the necessary after-care and integration.
Breeksema: “It would be very valuable if the Netherlands could be at the forefront regarding this area of development and demonstrate how a tight cooperation between all interested parties can lead to safe and careful implementation of PAT in current healthcare. Despite many positive developments, we need to proceed with caution and remain critical regarding PAT. These substances are able to induce very confronting experiences that could be painful and complicated to comprehend. This requires professional facilitation and guidance in order to accompany this process.”
Ultimately, Breeksema thinks that the message has been received by Dutch minister Kuipers, particularly regarding the necessity for more and bigger research. Kuipers acknowledges that he sees the importance from a systematic approach – it will take too long for these treatments to arrive at patients when we only have a handful of small studies. Breeksema agrees: “this is something we emphasise in particular in the report.”
After the mini-symposium, there was room for a private session with some patients, therapists and minister Kuipers. Breeksema: “I am very happy that minister Kuipers and member of parliament Wieke Paulusma took the time to talk with both therapists and patients about their experiences with psychedelics. Those sessions are not always easy and I think that we clearly showed how significant it is to take patients seriously and that professional guidance by healthcare practitioners, which includes training as well, remains an essential requirement for the success of these treatments.”
Right after new results from his research on alcohol addiction and psychedelics emerged, Michael Bogenschutz confirmed his attendance at ICPR. A professor of Psychiatry at NYU Grossman School of Medicine and Director of the NYU Langone Center for Psychedelic Medicine, Dr. Bogenschutz is well known for launching the first contemporary study of psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy for alcohol use disorder in 2015. He has published extensively on the topic of addiction and the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.
Just one week ago, he reached another milestone in psychedelic research through his publication of the first double-blind randomized clinical trial of psilocybin for alcohol use disorder. This trial took a long time to complete, as the recruitment process took place from 2014 until 2020. But the wait seems worth it, as the final sample reached a total of 95 participants.
For Dr. Bogenschutz, this means a giant leap from his initial pilot study from 2015, which consisted of a sample of only 10 individuals – an issue that often looms over contemporary psychedelic research.
All the individuals who participated in the study struggled with excessive drinking. More specifically, those randomized to the psilocybin or placebo (diphenhydramine) group, respectively drank an average of 7.5 and 6.6 drinks per day. Both groups received 12 weeks of manualized psychotherapy and were administered either psilocybin or diphenhydramine at week 4 and week 8.
The study wanted to assess, most of all, whether the percentage of heavy drinking days was reduced following psilocybin. They found that the psilocybin group was associated with “robust decreases in percentage of heavy drinking days over and above those produced by active placebo and psychotherapy.”
The researchers assessed this 32 weeks after their first dosing session. The percentage of heavy drinking days was still 23,6% for the placebo group, meaning they drank heavily about once every four days, but for the psilocybin group, it was only 9.7% – once every ten days.
On top of that, there were also higher reports of individuals in the psilocybin group who had stopped drinking entirely. 24,4% of the placebo group did so, compared to 47.9% of the psilocybin group.
Through these results, Dr. Bogenschutz is genuinely changing the field of psychiatry, as there have been no new drug approvals in nearly twenty years for alcohol addiction. The only three approved conventional drugs for the treatment of alcohol use disorder are currently disulfiram, naltrexone, and acamprosate. Psilocybin, as such, might become a lifesaver for many people suffering from alcohol addiction.
But Dr. Bogenschutz is not done yet, as he recently announced that there will be a subsequent trial that aims to include more than 200 participants. This time the study will consist of only one single dose of psilocybin and will be compared to the vitamin niacin as another active placebo. The Food and Drug Administration has recently approved this trial. It will be the largest to date to examine the efficacy of psilocybin-assisted therapy for the treatment of alcohol use disorder.
In recent years, there has been an uptick in attention surrounding the substance known as 5-Meo-DMT. It is popularly known as a toad’s psychedelic gift – but is now also being scientifically studied in clinical research. The compound seems ideal as a fast-acting tool for ego-dissolution, with potential therapeutic use. The substance produces stunning effects that no other psychedelic seems to match, and does so within a manageable time frame.
And oh yes: it also happens to be legally available in many locales.
This is why 5-MeO-DMT might be one of the most fascinating – and potentially useful – psychedelics there is. Just like its first cousin DMT, 5-MeO-DMT is a naturally occurring compound. It can be found in both fauna and flora, like seeds, bark, and leaves from a number of plants in the Amazonian rainforest. The Sonoran Desert Toad, official name Incilius alvarius, is its most well-known carrier and has parotid glands that provide the toad’s primary defense system: a poison potent enough to kill a grown dog. This milky secretion also happens to contain 5-MeO-DMT, or 5-Methoxy-N,N-DiMethylTryptamine. If it is collected, dried, and smoked, the toxin produces a powerful, 15-20 minute psychedelic experience that completely differs in its effects from all the other classic psychedelic compounds – including DMT, its closest molecular cousin.
The fact that it hasn’t been scheduled in many countries facilitates research into the substance. Scientists and therapists wanting to work with substances like LSD and psilocybin, which have been put on international drug control lists, need to jump through many hoops in order to get research started.
‘Fast-acting therapeutic relief’
Maybe that’s part of the reason why scientific research into the useability of this substance has now taken off. In 2019, Maastricht University investigated the effects of 5-MeO-DMT. They found that in a naturalistic setting, a single inhalation resulted in enhanced satisfaction with life and decreased psychopathological symptoms, including depression, anxiety, and stress – all of which were sustained for up to 4 weeks after the experience. ¹
This year (2022), the group, led by Johannes Reckweg, published a review of the current knowledge of 5-MeO-DMT and hypothesized mechanisms underlying its effects. It mapped the workings of the drug, and weighed its potential utility for mental health. It concluded that ongoing research was justified: “The current therapeutic potential of 5-MeO-DMT is mainly hypothetical and based on preliminary evidence. […] Although limited, the studies offer converging evidence of the potential ability of 5-MeO-DMT to provide fast-acting, and potentially immediate, therapeutic relief for depression, anxiety, and stress-related disorders (such as PTSD) in particular.” ²
When a psychedelic molecule finds its way into the 5HT2A receptor binding site, depending on its shape and charge distribution (and thus the interactions formed within the binding site), it will distort the receptor and shift it into a distinct active conformation (ON state). pic.twitter.com/d4t2KQg9yD
Dr. Chris Timmermann has also been investigating the effects of 5-MeO-DMT at the Center for Psychedelic Research, at Imperial College London. He described the gripping psychedelic for us: “What makes 5-MeO-DMT truly unique,” Timmermann says, “is its apparent ability to induce states of ego dissolution in such a reliable fashion. The structure of the experience is fundamentally altered compared to other psychedelics – which usually provide a very rich visual experience. With ‘5-MeO’, users apparently experience a ‘white light’ that is closely associated with the ego-death experience. It is that ego-death experience that appears to have a radical impact on the user, especially in the case of addiction.”
According to Dr. Timmerman, the reliability with which 5-MeO-DMT appears to induce ego dissolution and non-dual consciousness is as interesting for consciousness research as it is for experimental psychiatry. Indeed, 5-MeO-DMT appears to induce a state of “non-dual consciousness,” which refers to a state of being in which subject and object are undifferentiated, similar to that reported by experienced meditators.
Unlike Ayahuasca, which has a clear indigenous lineage found in the shamanic traditions of amazonian tribes, the cultural heritage of 5-MeO-DMT remains unclear. Although numerous ceramic frog motifs found in the Santarem Territory of the Amazon suggest an indigenous connection to the animal, and some local names could allude to an elevated status of the toad, the evidence is often too ambiguous to make any direct connection to the psychedelic properties of Incilius Alvarius. Maybe future anthropological findings will shine more light into cultures that might have used it in the past. For now, its culture is a more modern tale.
5-MeO-DMT was first synthesized in 1936 by chemists Toshio Hoshino and Kenya Shimodaira but lay dormant as far as use went. Until 1983, when the book Bufo Alvarius: the psychedelic toad of the Sonoran Desert was published by a writer calling himself Albert Most. This latin name was used for the toad until its new classification as Incilius in 2006.
“Bufo Alvarius” is a seminal work describing the toad, its milky defense system and possible 5-MeO-DMT harvesting methods. The book opened the door to the modern culture of smoking the ‘toad venom’, as some tabloids called it and which -by the way- is an inaccurate term. In biology, ‘venom’ would mean the substance is injected by the toad, but it is not: it is sprayed.
That’s not the only confusion around the psychedelic toad. The taxonomy of the toad itself has changed. In 2006, it was classified as a member of the Incilius genus, so the book’s name is now dated. Also, the person laying the foundation for this new culture of toad toxin smoking, ‘Albert Most’, remained an enigma for many years.
The person behind the pseudonym was unknown for three decades, until he was revealed by psychonaut-journalist Hamilton Morris to be a man called Alfred Savinelli – who then was revealed to be an impostor by that same Hamilton Morris! In the third season premiere of his VICE Series Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia, Morris uncovers the lie of Savinelli, and exposes the real author of ‘Bufo Alvarius’ : Ken Nelson.
Nelson turns out to be a reclusive psychedelic researcher, environmentalist and veteran from Texas. To right past wrongs, Nelson and Morris released a new version of Nelson’s pamphlet, featuring Morris’ synthesis of 5-MeO-DMT.
There is still plenty of runway for the substance to create a culture of its own. It was readily available online as a ‘research chemical’ in the United States, and enjoyed limited attention. But its scheduling in the USA in 2011 provided a bolt of attention that increased its popularity. In 2019, the substance was potent enough to knock out former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson, who openly talked about the spiritual awakening that resulted from his use of 5-MeO-DMT.
Soon after, others followed. Media outlets such as Forbes and the New-York Times featured stories about the transformative effects of the substance and included testimonials from ex-Navy SEAL Marcus Capone and his ongoing battle to help other Special Operations veterans access 5-MeO-DMT. All this media attention contributed to the mainstreaming of this compound in the last few years, despite its illegality.
These restrictions have hampered research into 5-MeO-DMT in the countries where it has been forbidden. But in countries like the Netherlands, multiple studies into 5-MeO-DMT are now underway.
As said, there is no indigenous ritual surrounding the use of 5-MeO-DMT, yet treatment centers using the toad’s poison have started to spring up incorporating rituals from other psychedelic cultures. These psychedelic sessions can set you back from $250 up to $8500.
This new popularity has not been good for the Sonoran Desert Toad itself, a risk voiced by Robert Anthony Villa, president of the Tucson herpetological society. Although the toad seems comfortable in human-made constructions like irrigation ditches, suburban yards and near water tanks on ranches – it is now often poached for psychedelic purposes, after which it is stressed out to produce its venom.
A solution for this animal cruelty could be a synthetic variant of the drug which would be preferable over one involving stressing out animals. That’s one of the reasons why Hamilton Morris included the synthesis process for 5-MeO-DMT in one of his episodes. The new edition of Bufo Alvarius: the psychedelic toad of the Sonoran Desert, also features Hamilton Morris’ synthesis of 5-MeO-DMT in a Mexican lab.
THE USER EXPERIENCE
When vaporized, a single deep inhalation of 5-MeO-DMT produces strong psychoactive effects within 15 seconds. After inhalation, the user usually experiences a warm sensation, euphoria, and strong visual and auditory hallucinations, due to 5-MeO-DMT’s high affinity for the 5-HT2A serotonin receptor subtype. The duration of these effects are comparable to those of DMT, lasting between 15 and 20 minutes. According to trip reports, at commonly-used doses, 5-MeO-DMT may possess the most complex and overwhelming effects of the classic psychedelic family.
Physical effects can include changes in perceived gravity, pupil dilation, muscle spasms, temperature regulation suppression, and feelings of loss of breath, but also an overwhelming intensity of physical and tactile sensations that can lead to the sensation of repeated, full-body orgasms.
Cognitive effects include distortion of space and time, amnesia, ego dissolution and auditory verbal hallucinations. Visual effects can include visual acuity enhancement, with drifting, color-shifting and morphing of complex geometrical patterns, but more often, reports mention visual suppression, where a blinding white light replaces all the visual complexity usually associated with hallucinogens. Much of this is often preceded by nausea, according to Drug Science UK.
An anonymous OPEN member described his 5-MeO-DMT experience for us as follows: “If LSD is a rollercoaster, 5-MeO-DMT is an intergalactic faster-than-light rocket that takes you to a wholly unrecognizable state of being. Landing back from a high-dose experience you are left with more questions than you came in with, but what an amazing ride it is.”
The combination of all these effects often results in transpersonal effects, during which the sense of identity of the individuals experiencing them extends beyond the personal level to humankind, nature and even the cosmos, which makes for the mystical quality of the experience. As mentioned earlier, 5-MeO-DMT also reliably induces ego dissolution, a phenomenon characterized by a complete change in normal, everyday, self-referential awareness.
So far, very little clinical research has been done on 5-MeO-DMT. The limited number of published studies suggest the compound might be safe and useful in a clinical context. If it turns out that 5-MeO-DMT does indeed have beneficial therapeutic effects, as anecdotal and early scientific evidence suggests, the promising aspects in terms of its practical use in a clinical context would be the duration of its effects.
The Beckley foundation has recently mentioned that MDMA or psilocybin-assisted therapy usually take up an entire working day for the therapist, which “poses a potential bottleneck to patient access in the future,” so a short-acting psychedelic like 5-MeO-DMT would help with both the clinical trial process and subsequent access to psychedelic therapy. As Michael Pollan mentioned in 2018: “a psychedelic therapist wants to be home for dinner too.”
Indeed, 15-20 minutes of medical and psychological supervision is a lot more manageable for clinical trials and therapists compared to the 3-6 hours that are necessary for psilocybin, or the 6-12 hours necessary for LSD. And this could eventually help in making the mystical experience more accessible.
LESS IS MORE?
The properties of 5-MeO-DMT lead to fascinating questions about its future potential utility in psychedelic-assisted therapy. But is the psychedelic indeed capable of the same types of transformations that have resulted from LSD, psilocybin and MDMA-assisted therapy? In other words: does the short-acting nature of 5-MeO-DMT come at the cost of its therapeutic benefit?
The answer to those questions is unclear as of yet. The potency of its effects suggests that the short-acting nature of the experience does not impede on its quality, but ongoing clinical trials could shed more light on them.
In many ways, ongoing research on 5-MeO-DMT will give us a window into the feasibility of short-acting psychedelic-assisted therapy, and might very well determine the fate of the emerging short-acting psychedelic field. ㅤ
There are many documentaries about psychedelics nowadays, but only so little time to watch them all, let alone figure out which one’s are worth it! That’s why we came up with a list of documentaries on psychedelics that you can watch, or binge, comfortably from your own living room. They’re selected for their scientific soundness, cultural insight, or overall high quality.
All of them are worthy study material before you join us at ICPR 2022 near Amsterdam – where some of the speakers are actually some of the people featured in these series and films. Their work is at the basis of this renaissance in psychedelic research and the new generation of documentaries that it has spawned. Enjoy our dose of inspiration.
If there is one documentary that hits all the marks when it comes to information about psychedelics, as well as other psychoactive drugs, while simultaneously delivering a high entertainment value, it is – without a doubt – Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia, of which there are now three seasons.
This documentary series is written, directed, and produced by Hamilton Morris, a journalist and scientific researcher who explores the history, chemistry, and social impact of various psychoactive substances across the globe.
Hamilton illustrates how ubiquitous psychedelic drugs are and goes out on a limb to try several of them himself – showcasing his dedication and genuine curiosity when it comes to studying the effects of these extraordinary substances. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the merits of every episode on its own, but we compiled a hit list of our favorite episodes shown at the end of this commentary. That’s right – more stuff to binge this coming summer! Just watching these will suffice for at least 8 hours of entertainment, where Hamilton Morris meets with underground chemists that illegally synthesized MDMA; travels to Huautla de Jimenez in Mexico to visit the family of the legendary curandera María Sabina’s to talk about psilocybin-containing mushrooms; smokes 5-MeO DMT in the Sonoran desert under supervision of a shaman; and talks with Amanda Feilding about how she helped to fund the very first neuro-imaging study of LSD. Be sure to absolutely check this series out!
Quote of the series
“It is so strange that these compounds exist. What is the purpose of any of this? 5-MeO-DMT? This? In a toad’s venom? And people may have only started using it 30 years ago? And it produces this peak experience of love? I can’t believe it! It is so amazing!” – Hamilton Morris
Our hitlist for best episodes:
Episode 4 – Magic Mushrooms in Mexico
Episode 6 – The Lazy Lizard School of Hedonism
Episode 1 – The Psychedelic Toad
Episode 2 – Peyote: The Divine Messenger
Episode 4 – Wizards of DMT
Episode 5 – Ketamine: Realms and Realities
Episode 6 – A Clandestine Chemist’s Tale
Episode 1 – Synthetic Toad Venom Machine
Episode 4 – Synthetic Ibogaine: Natural Tramadol
Episode 6 – UItra LSD
Descending the mountain (2021)
Filled with aesthetically pleasing images, jaw dropping cinematography, a great psychedelic soundtrack, and a pinch of neuroscience, Descending the Mountain excels at every front. The documentary includes renowned psychedelic researcher Prof. Dr. Franz Vollenweider and Zen master Vanja Palmers. Their mission? To set out to a monastery on top of mountain Rigi in Switzerland to conduct a novel experiment in which experienced meditators received psilocybin-containing mushrooms in a group setting for the first time in their life. This experiment was double-blind, where neither the researchers or the participants knew what dose they received. Some of the meditators received an active dose of psilocybin, whereas others were ‘unfortunate’ (in their words) and received a placebo. It is amazing, to say the least, how these experienced meditators were able to deepen their meditation due to psilocybin, even after thousands of hours of meditation practice. One individual was completely ecstatic from the beginning till the end and amazed by what he was experiencing. Others felt it to be a collective experience, rather than an individual one, as they were able to feel the energy in the room. Ultimately, placebo or no placebo, the group setting was conducive to the experience at the mountain.
Quote of the movie
“What can the mushrooms tell us today?” – Descending the Mountain
Halfway through the documentary, Prof. Dr. Vollenweider explains briefly how psychedelics work and that neuroscientific research of today has consistently demonstrated that they deactivate the Default Mode Network (DMN) – a key brain region involved in self-referential processing. With their experiment on Mount Rigi, they too found that the participants who received psilocybin were able to enter a deep(er) meditative state and showed less activity in the DMN when compared to the placebo group. Vollenweider explains how it: “makes you less focused on yourself because, in a way, you lose your ‘self’, and that this tends to make you focus more on others around you.” This dovetails neatly with the hypothesis that psychedelics are able to alter personality and political beliefs, something that the documentary explores briefly as well through asking significant questions as: “What can psychedelics do for society today? What will happen if great leaders take these substances and make us think about our place in the world?”
Michael Pollan’s How To Change Your Mind (2022)
Four years after the release of his book under the same name, Michael Pollan hit the big screen on Netflix with a documentary series: How to Change Your Mind. To say that his book had somewhat of an influence on the psychedelic renaissance is an understatement. Individuals even talk about a Pre-Pollan era and Post-Pollan era within psychedelic research. And now, with this new and cinematic tour du force, Pollan might continue to increase his reach by showcasing these tools to people all over the world sitting in their living room.
The documentary consists of a total of four episodes, each focusing on a specific psychedelic. The first episode focuses on the synthesis of LSD by Dr. Albert Hofmann in 1938, the research of its therapeutic use when treating alcoholism, and how it ultimately became a Schedule I substance – as it ended up on the streets through evangelist Timothy Leary and the CIA project MKUltra, that serendipitously turned on Ken Kesey. In the second episode, the viewer is brought to the world of psilocybin-containing mushrooms and features ICPR speakers William Richards, Paul Stamets, and Roland Griffiths. Here, Pollan discusses their historic use in religious settings, the introduction of the mushroom to the West, and how it is currently being researched for various debilitating psychiatric disorders, such as depression, end-of-life anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, and cluster headaches. The third episode features ICPR speaker Rick Doblin and is all about the therapeutic use of MDMA for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. Pollan interviews Ann Shulgin, the wife of renowned chemist Alexander Shulgin, – who recently passed away – about her personal experiences with MDMA and how it ended up becoming illegal through the so-called “Second Summer of Love”’ during the 1980s. Finally, Pollan takes a deep dive into the ceremonial use of the peyote cactus by indigineous Americans that are part of the Native American Church.
The documentary provides a solid starting point for anyone who is new to the world of psychedelics and likes to be prepared for what we have to offer at ICPR. It presents some of the most recently conducted preliminary research studies and their implications. Contrary to contemporary media headlines, it is refreshing to see that Pollan remains centered throughout the entire documentary with regards to the therapeutic potential of psychedelics and messages to the audience to do the same. This is a welcoming message that is to be embraced if we do not wish to repeat past mistakes.
The Psychedelic Drug Trial (2021)
Major depressive disorder (MDD) is the leading cause of disability in the West, says ICPR speaker and Professor of Neuropsychopharmacology David Nutt. Across the globe, MDD is estimated to affect 350 million individuals and is responsible for more ‘years lost’ than any other psychiatric condition. Psychiatry has been desperate for novel treatments.
One of the current mainstays of treatment in psychiatry is escitalopram, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), better known under its brand name Lexapro. This psychotropic drug increases the amount of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain and has been proven by earlier clinical research to be effective and well tolerated in the treatment of MDD. But this begs the question: “How does escitalopram, or Lexapro, compare to psilocybin when used for treating depression?” This is what the research team in the Psychedelic Drug Trial set out to do.
Quote of the movie
“If psychedelics can change the world, let’s put it to the test.” – Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris
The documentary presents an extensive in-depth look into how the study was conducted by displaying easy-to-comprehend visuals and various infographics. The documentary really shines here and you immediately get a clear understanding of what the study design looked like. It also exemplifies how current psychedelic therapy operates and provides the three important stages involved, which includes: preparation before the dosing session, the psychedelic dosing session itself, and the integration that follows.
What is more, you get to know some of the recruited participants who were told that they are randomized to one of two conditions. They will either receive 1) psilocybin or 2) escitalopram, not both. Almost all of the participants have been on antidepressants for decades and suffer from various side effects, including weight gain, sleep paralysis, and a flat affect. The psilocybin trial represents a “lifeline” according to some of the participants – a viable alternative to their current situation of “concentrating on staying alive” and trying “to live with this joylessness.” One participant is at the end of her ropes and tells the camera: “I would probably end my life if I didn’t go [through the trial].”
Soon after this introduction, we are taken into a living room like environment where the psychedelic therapy session took place. Participants at this point are talking about their extraordinary experiences and the various symbols they encountered during their psychedelic dosing session. The documentary really excels here due to its slow presentation of recorded monologues and by displaying aesthetic visuals that are aimed at encapsulating the participants’ experience while on psilocybin. One participant talks about one of her peak experiences where she found herself at the roots of a tree and: “was connecting with everything up there. The thing I really felt most … was a joy. Joy like I’d never experienced. It is really, really powerful stuff.”
The documentary would not have been complete without a brief presentation by ICPR speaker David Nutt on how psychedelics such as psilocybin work in the brain and how they differ from escitalopram. Nutt first explains that antidepressants as escitalopram take about an average of six weeks to work and do so primarily in the limbic system, the emotional center of the brain that is overactive in depression: “It dampens the system and you become incubated against stress, which is good, but you also become incubated by everything else.” Psilocybin, on the other hand, works differently by targeting the serotonin 2A receptor, which are widely prevalent in the neocortex. Psilocybin also works through the disruption of the Default Mode Network that Franz Vollenweider similarly talked about in Descending the Mountain. Both professor Nutt and lead researcher of the study Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris believe that psilocybin works better and faster than escitalopram.
The results of this landmark study have been published in the highly esteemed The New England Journal of Medicine. Their conclusion? Both psilocybin and escitalopram work in the treatment of depression. But when taking into account secondary outcome measurements such as suicidality, psilocybin looks better than escitalopram. More recent neuroscientific findings of the current study have been published as well, which looked at how psilocybin affects the brain and how it differs from antidepressants. All in all, more research is needed as we venture forth in our pursuit to help people alleviate their depressive symptoms.
Journeys to the Edge of Consciousness (2019)
Journeys to the Edge of Consciousness is a unique animated film that chronicles the very first psychedelic experiences of Timothy Leary, Aldous Huxley, and Alan Watts. The film is interspersed with commentaries on these historical and influential events by ICPR speakers Rick Doblin and Amanda Feilding, and various other researchers within the psychedelic field.
The Dropout Drug
We first witness how Timothy Leary got involved with LSD through meeting Michael Hollingshead, a British researcher who studied psychedelics at Harvard University in the mid twentieth century. Leary’s first LSD trip was: “the most extraordinary experience of his life.” Yet to my surprise, he also felt a terrible sense of loss after this trip, as he did not know what to do with these new insights: “Once you see how it is all composed, it is hard to get back to the game.” This experience demonstrates that even psychedelic evangelists as Leary, a very intelligent man who was probably one of the most well-known proponents of psychedelics, would have benefitted from the importance of integration. The world would have been a very different place indeed if Leary underwent this integral part following psychedelic use. Instead, he decided to leave the highly esteemed university of Harvard and famously told students to: “tune in, turn off, and drop out.” This resulted in the then U.S. president Richard Nixon to call him the most dangerous man of America.
Commentaries from other experts on Leary’s psychedelic experience are very informative. They exemplify how psychedelics are able to lift the veil of ordinary reality, which can either facilitate, or in the case of Leary, diminish our well-being, because we see through the illusion, i.e., the play of life. You’re catapulted out of your ego and you can spend years of life making sense of it all, which might have happened to Timothy Leary according to Dr. Tim Read. Yet, Dr .Gabor Maté states that bad trips can also be interpreted differently: “Yes, a trip can be challenging, but what you need is proper integration. This is the work of healing. The psychedelic experience and its healing properties were lost during the 60s because there was a lack of intention.
The Doors of Perception
Next we get a close look at Aldous Huxley’s famous psychedelic experience with mescaline that led him to write his famous work The Doors of Perception: and Heaven and Hell. During his experience, he realizes that “this is how one ought to see” and that the ordinary mode of consciousness is but one form of consciousness. Huxley talks about the suchness of things while on mescaline and develops his metaphor of the reducing valve of the mind, which limits our view of reality and who we really are.
According to ICPR speaker Rick Doblin, Huxley’s insights demonstrate where we should put our meaning: “not on consuming, but on something deeper.” Other psychedelic researchers talk about how people ‘wake up’ after their psychedelic experience, including alterations of the perception of the self and various changes in their value system.
The Joyous Cosmology
Finally, we witness Alan Watts taking modest amounts of LSD while in California and who decided to casually go for a stroll. His first undertaking was to listen to a priest in a church during a mass. He witnesses how people are putting on an “act of a person”, which is one of the key phrases of Alan Watts. His feeling of self became no longer confined to the insides of his skin as he felt connected to everything: “my individual of being seems to grow out to the rest of the universe.” The animated re-enactment of Alan Watts’ psychedelic experience gives us a glimpse into how psychedelics helped shape his philosophy.
Quote of the movie
“Come off it shiva, you rascal, who do you think you’re kidding!? It’s a great act, but you’re not fooling me!” – Alan Watts
Neurons to Nirvana (2013)
Neurons to Nirvana is filled with numerous psychedelic researchers who will be attending ICPR, including Rick Doblin, William Richards, David Nutt, Roland Griffiths, and Amanda Feilding. The film gives a brief overview of classic psychedelics, including psilocybin, ayahuasca, and LSD. In addition, the entactogen MDMA is briefly discussed plus the medicinal benefits of other (non-)psychoactive substances as marijuana and cannabidiol.
The film starts with the serendipitous event of how psychedelics helped shape modern psychiatry and neuroscience. LSD, as it turns out, has a very similar structure to serotonin that led to the discovery of the serotonin neurotransmitter system. As a result, psychiatry started including brain chemistry into the disease process, whereas before all the accountability went to either the individual or the environment.
It was a revolutionary period for which the famous psychedelic researcher Ralph Metzner said that discovering psychedelics: “was like discovering another continent, like Marco Polo.” Both ICPR speakers Rick Doblin and David Nichols mention how psychedelics are able to occasion a mystical experience and how this helps experience the world as one as it breaks down certain barriers. Roland Griffiths adds: “there is this quantum change during a psychedelic experience – it belongs among the most spiritual and personal meaningful experiences of peoples’ lives.”
Quote of the movie
“What is being purged actually, is psychological contents that you’ve been holding onto. You’re purging anger, you’re purging pain, you’re purging some false story about the self.” –Gabor Maté M.D.
A great feature of the film that is worth mentioning here is that it shows the capability of human individuals being able to change their beliefs when it comes to esoteric substances such as psychedelic drugs. This is illustrated when Dr. Sanjay Gupta appears on the big screen, an Emmy award-winning doctor for his show on CNN who used to vehemently oppose the use of marijuana. This was until the year 2009, as the scientific evidence started accumulating and Dr. Gupta discovered that it was used for thousands of years. He also found out that before there was a strong focus on the negative. Most importantly, Dr. Sanjay Gupta was illuminated by the benefits of marijuana: “the science is there!”. This clearly demonstrates how scientific evidence can pave the way for reconstructing our beliefs about psychedelics. Hopefully, other physicians, researchers, and politicians will follow suit.
The Last Shaman (2016)
The Last Shaman follows young adult James who is battling with crippling bouts of depression ever since he went to university. He is desperate for a way out as he tried doing everything according to the book on both a medical and personal level. In general, this involved seeing several psychiatrists, taking antidepressants, and picking up a regular meditation practice. Despite his arduous efforts, he remains depressed. At the end of his ropes, he travels to Peru to meet several shamans that might be able to help him.
The documentary is not for the faint of heart and can be very shocking in demonstrating how debilitating depression can be. James suffers from extreme anhedonia, which refers to the inability to feel pleasure: “I see a beautiful woman or a sunset and I feel nothing.” He explains how his depression affects him in front of the camera and this raw footage makes the documentary feel very personal, but also heart-wrenching to watch at times, as his eyes are filled with tears and his voice is featured by a tremendous amount of frustration and despair. He ends up meeting various shamans in different regions and engages in multiple ceremonies to finally reach salvation.
James’ journey ends deep within the forest at the Shipibo community – a place that resembles just the right amount of authenticity he is looking for. Shamans here do the practice because it is a calling, whereas the business side of things are left aside. James ventures deeper into his emotions, revealing one layer from another layer, and becomes a passionate ascetic. He maintains a very strict diet and stays in isolation for a total of four months, eating nothing but fish and rice and smoking the Mapacho tobacco. This experience ripped him of all attachments of his previous life. He believes he: “no longer has an inferiority complex anymore” and feels no more anger towards his father.
Quote of the movie
“I’m here to be a very small part of something much larger than myself, and that is extremely liberating” – James
Iboga Nights (2014)
David Graham, the director and producer of the renowned and brutal documentary Detox or Die, returns to the big screen with Iboga Nights. His first documentary consists of his mission to cure himself of his opiate addiction through ibogaine – a psychedelic substance with dissociative properties that is extracted from the root bark of the iboga tree (Tabernanthe iboga). His film became a resounding success that resulted in an explosion of media, press and news articles. This inspired other addicts to follow in his footsteps by taking up ibogaine and get rid of their opiate addiction once and for all. Iboga Nights follows several of David’s ‘apprentices’.
Iboga Nights is basically split up in three sections. The first is where we are introduced to a shaman from the Netherlands who has treated an approximate of 1,000 patients with ibogaine for their opiate addiction. To my surprise, there was almost no guidance involved; the shaman plainly administers the drug and then lets ibogaine take its course while the participants stay in their assigned bedroom. It was quite astounding to see how most turned out fine and even managed to go through the treatment without experiencing any withdrawal symptoms. However, the documentary quickly takes a dark turn that illustrates the significance of taking into account proper screening and guidance. For instance, one participant stopped breathing due to an underlying heart condition and was taken away to the hospital. Ibogaine is known for slowing down the heart rate that might be fatal. Fortunately, he survived. But another participant left the house and was hit by a truck. David wanted to end the film right there: “how can I be a spokesperson for something so dangerous?”
After these horrific events, David meets up with Dr. Ben Sessa and Dr. Jeffrey Kamlet to talk about psychedelic research and ibogaine. Both share a pessimistic view with regards to pharmaceutical companies and how they supposedly “treat” patients, as they make billions of dollars on pain pills that generally require daily use. Naturally, they scoff at this predicament: “Why do they want ibogaine that requires one dose to cure people. That does not make money?”
Quote of the movie
“Does it not feel weird to have had that life, among such affluence, and now be living in a hotel shooting up crack and heroin and taking up methadone?” – David Graham
Fortunately, the documentary also contains the amazing journey of Sid who was severely addicted to morphine and completely transformed through his ibogaine treatment. He was sexually abused by an older man when he was only 11 years old. During his session, both David and Sid are serious by taking screening and guidance into account. For example, they check if Sid is allergic to ibogaine and during the ibogaine treatment will frequently measure his heart rate and blood pressure. It is astounding to see that even after fivedays of taking ibogaine and no morphine at all, any symptoms of withdrawal are virtually non-existent. But Sid knows that the real treatment starts after ibogaine, which requires integration and (simply) staying off the drug. Several months later David returns to visit Sid and witnesses another person in front of him. He has become a completely transformed person and has much more energy and life in his eyes. Sid talks briefly about his ibogaine experience: “I did not have many visions or anything, but it took my physical dependence away.” The urge, or craving to use drugs, is totally gone. Sid simply does not: “want to do that anymore.”
From Shock to Awe (2018)
The documentary From Shock to Awe chronicles the transformative journey of two military veterans that suffer from severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Because of this, everything they encounter on a day-to-day basis within their natural environment signals danger. With their bodies still in war and drugged by an arsenal of pharmaceuticals, they turn to the Amazonian brew ayahuasca as a last resort.
Quote of the movie
“I left the warrior behind and let the sunlight take the steering wheel now.”
Both veterans are filmed during their ayahuasca retreat that consisted of four ceremonies, two during the day and two at night. During all dosing sessions, we see grueling raw footage of both veterans struggling with their deep-rooted trauma. The entire retreat resembles the archetypal hero’s journey of diving into the unconscious and coming back into the real world reborn. Through ayahuasca, they realized that all life is sacred, which is: “the exact opposite of what is learned during military training.” Their perception of everyday ‘signals as danger’ changed after only one weekend, as they heard a gunshot in the woods, locked eyes, and started laughing immediately. The PTSD response was no more.
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