Sunday, September 25, 2016

Hallucinogen Therapy Is Coming

Three years later Daniel Kreitman still chokes up when he talks about what he saw, and how it changed him. Kreitman, an upholsterer by trade, had taken psilocybin, a hallucinogen derived from mushrooms, in a trial at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine for nicotine addiction. He was 52, and he’d smoked between one and two packs a day for nearly 40 years. After his first psilocybin session, his urge to smoke was gone. During his third and final session, he had the vision that helped him quit for good.

He saw lakes, roads, and mountains, and a broad-shouldered man at the helm of a ship, lassoing birds. Was it his dead father? He wasn’t sure. But he remembers giggling and feeling good. Music was playing in his headphones. During Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring he had the sensation of physically touching the music, which was smooth and bright yellow in his mind’s eye. As the music progressed, he traveled, flowing outward toward an immense space that never ended. He may have wept for joy—he’s not sure—but the beauty of the vision overwhelmed him. “I was seeing forever,” he told me.

Kreitman was brought up Jewish, but doesn’t consider himself to be particularly religious. Yet he falls back on religious language to explain the experience. “I think I saw God at one point,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion. The day after the session, in his journal, he wrote: “The question is, if I saw God and infinity, what’s next? How does that change me and my life?”

When I spoke with him this August, Kreitman had an answer: he hadn’t had a cigarette for three years. He’d previously tried nicotine gum and patches, to no avail. He always returned to the habit, falling into the easy rhythms of smoking on the way to work and on the way home. It was taking a toll on his health, though. He was chronically short of breath and although they didn’t nag, his wife and children were concerned for his health. Since that session three years ago, however, cravings have barely registered. “It’s kind of crazy,” he told me. “I don’t feel like I’m fighting this addiction. It’s like it’s not even me.”

The trial was small, just 15 people, but it’s on the vanguard of resurgent research into the therapeutic potential of hallucinogens—a “psychedelic renaissance,” as one researcher described it. Work from the mid-20th century suggested that psychedelics held therapeutic promise. But those studies didn’t generally hew to modern scientific design.

Now, after decades of neglect, scientists are beginning to rigorously test hallucinogens as medicine. They’re trying to treat some of our most vexing afflictions, including addiction, depression, and the existential anxiety of having a terminal disease. The small studies so far conducted have yielded striking results. In one ten-person pilot study on alcoholics, participants more than halved their alcohol intake six months after taking psilocybin. In Kreitman’s study, 60 percent of smokers who took psilocybin hadn’t smoked two-and-a-half years later.

If hallucinogens prove effective in treating substance abuse, they would address a massive unmet need. They’d also possibly force a change in how we think about the dysfunction that underlies these conditions.

In the past, addiction was cast as a moral failing. Today it’s variously seen as a psychiatric condition, a learning disorder, or a disorder of the brain. Given that dependency on one’s drug of choice eventually emerges, a common treatment approach is to wean addicts off their drugs by, in the case of smoking, giving ever smaller quantities of nicotine in patches or gum.

Hallucinogen therapy dispenses with this gradualist approach, instead seeking a more sudden transformation. That’s in part because many studies, including the Johns Hopkins trial Kreitman participated in, suggest those who have mystical experiences while on psilocybin have the best outcome. This kind of sudden, divine-seeming insight, what William James termed a “conversion,” is central to many religious and meditative traditions. It can also occur in more prosaic contexts—a phenomenon one psychologist has dubbed “quantum change.” People can quickly and inexplicably, often after a profound epiphany, change.

The question of how, precisely, hallucinogens trigger these transformations has sent neuroscientists down an intriguing rabbit hole. They have observed similarities between what happens in meditators’ brains and people on hallucinogens. Neural networks that serve as control centers—the neural correlates of the old Freudian ego—may loosen their grip, freeing other regions of the brain.

Researchers often use an unusual language to talk about this transformation, one that emphasizes meaning and subjective experience over molecular pathways and neurotransmitters. Hallucinogen therapy seems to recast addiction not only as a disorder of the brain, but as a disorder of meaning—of framing and how we see ourselves.

Ultimately, hallucinogen researchers are addressing a mystery that’s central to psychology and psychiatry, not to mention the self-help section of the bookstore: the question of how people change, of how they escape limiting and often self-destructive behavioral patterns. Their early research suggests that hallucinogen therapy offers a radically new perspective on the self, showing people that they’re not slaves to their compulsions or fears, and providing them with a sense of connection to something ineffable, something greater than themselves.

by Moises Velasquez-Manoff, Nautilus |  Read more:
Image: Amanda Baeza