Study: Psychedelic trips aid anxiety treatments
AP Science Writer
NEW YORK- The big white pill was brought to her in an earthenware chalice. She’d already held hands with her two therapists and expressed her wishes for what it would help her do.
She swallowed it, lay on the couch with her eyes covered, and waited. And then it came.
“The world was made up of jewels and I was in a dome,” she recalled. Surrounded by brilliant, kaleidoscopic colors, she saw the dome open up to admit “this most incredible luminescence that made everything even more beautiful.”
Tears trickled down her face as she saw “how beautiful the world could actually be.”
That’s how Nicky Edlich, 67, began her first-ever trip on a psychedelic drug last year.
She said it helped her psychotherapeutic treatment for anxiety from her advanced ovarian cancer.
And for researchers, it was another small step toward showing that hallucinogenic drugs, famous but condemned in the 1960s, can one day help doctors treat conditions like cancer anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The New York University study Edlich participated in is among a handful now going on in the United States and elsewhere with drugs like LSD, MDMA (Ecstasy) and psilocybin, the main ingredient of “magic mushrooms.” The work follows lines of research choked off four decades ago by the war on drugs. The research is still preliminary. But at least it’s there.
“There is now more psychedelic research taking place in the world than at any time in the last 40 years,” said Rick Doblin, executive director of the Multidisciplin-ary Association for Psyche-delic Studies, which funds some of the work. “We’re at the end of the beginning of the renaissance.”
But doing the research is not easy, Doblin and others say, with government funders still leery and drug companies not interested in the compounds they can’t patent. That pretty much leaves private donors.
“There’s still a lot of resistance to it,” said David Nichols, a Purdue University professor of medicinal chemistry and president of the Heffter Institute, which is supporting the NYU study. “The whole hippie thing in the 60s” and media coverage at the time “has kind of left a bad taste in the mouth of the public at large.”
Edlich, whose cancer forced her to retire from teaching French at a private school, had plenty of reason to seek help through the NYU project. Several recurrences of her ovarian cancer had provoked fears about suffering and dying and how her death would affect her family. She felt “profound sadness that my life was going to be cut short.” And she faced existential questions: Why live? What does it all mean? How can I go on?
When she heard NYU researchers speak about the project at her cancer support group, she was interested.
Psilocybin has been shown to invoke powerful spiritual experiences during the four to six hours it affects the brain. A study published in 2008, in fact, found that even 14 months after healthy volunteers had taken a single dose, most said they were still feeling and behaving better because of the experience. They also said the drug produced one of the five most spiritually significant experiences they’d ever had.
Experts emphasize people shouldn’t try psilocybin on their own because it can be harmful, sometimes causing bouts of anxiety and paranoia.
The NYU study is testing whether that drug experience can help with the nine months of psychotherapy each participant also receives.
Did the drug experience help?
It let Edlich view issues she was working on through a different lens, she said.
All three people in the study so far felt better, with less general anxiety and fear of death and greater acceptance of the dying process, Ross said. No major side effects have appeared. The project plans to enroll 32 people.