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Exploring the Therapeutic Potential of Psychedelics

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Whilst research into psychedelics initially began in the 1950's, unfavorable media coverage and various misconceptions quickly led to the termination of such projects. However, in recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in studying these pharmacological compounds.

Technology Networks recently interviewed Ronan Levy, Founder and Executive Chairman of Field Trip Psychedelics, Inc. to find out more about the therapeutic potential of psychedelics and hear about the drugs undergoing clinical investigation.

Laura Lansdowne (LL): For some of our readers less familiar with Field Trip Psychedelics, could you tell us a little about the company mission and history?

Ronan Levy (RL):
Field Trip Psychedelics is world’s first mental wellness company at the forefront of the scientific re-emergence of psychedelics and psychedelic-enhanced therapies. With Field Trip Health centers opening across North America, and advanced research on plant-based psychedelics through Field Trip Discovery, we are focused on helping people and building the necessary infrastructure to support the re-emergence of psychedelics. Working with those in treatment to those seeking accelerated personal growth, we believe psychedelics and psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy offer a simple, evidence-based way to heal and heighten engagement with the world.

We started Field Trip because we live in a time where people are starting to recognize that mental and emotional health and wellness require as much proactive care and effort as physical health and fitness. As research shows, psychedelics are an effective catalyst, when used in conjunction with integration therapy, to help both those struggling with clinical diagnoses as well as those who are investing in their emotional health.

LL: Whilst there is some “stigma” around the therapeutic use of psychedelics, the field has garnered increasing attention – why do you think there is so much interest?

Put simply, psychedelics are garnering an incredible amount of interest because they work. The evidence shows that psychedelics, when used in conjunction with proper psychotherapy, are incredibly effective in treating mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. In one study using MDMA (the active ingredient in ecstasy) to treat chronic, severe PTSD, 70% of patients who went through an MDMA-assisted psychotherapy session were cured – that’s total resolution of all symptoms – of their disorder. Similarly, in studies looking at psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy and depression, many patients reported being relieved of severe depression symptoms for months at a time, after just one session. And the side effects associated with these psychedelics are minimal, if not positive, with many people reporting optimism, well-being and greater neuroplasticity following treatment. There are no current medications that come close to matching this effectiveness.

Secondly, there are a number of societal trends that are converging that help understand the interest in psychedelics. You see the successful emergence of cannabis therapeutics happening, which has enabled people to revisit once-stigmatized medicines as viable alternatives. Natural and holistic alternatives are also growing in relevance and use, as compared to conventional pharmacology. Thirdly, there is growing distrust – justified or otherwise – with the pharmaceutical industry, which has been exacerbated as a result of the opioid crisis. At the same time, mental health conditions are on the rise they are expected to be the leading cause of the global burden of disease by 2023, and addressing this global mental health crisis is increasingly becoming of greater importance in the public health conversation. When you look at all of these factors, it’s not surprising that psychedelics are having a moment in the sun. It’s well-justified.

LL: Can you elaborate on some of the medical and therapeutic applications of psychedelics?

It may come as a surprise to people, but psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy is already happening all across North America to treat a host of mental health conditions. Although use of the “classic” psychedelics are limited to clinical trials (or people who are seeking out underground therapy), the drug ketamine – which is legal and prescriptible in Canada and the US – is a dissociative psychedelic and is being used by some physicians to treat depression and anxiety. It’s also being shown to increase neuroplasticity and stimulate the growth of connections between neurons.

If we look at the “classic” psychedelics (such as psilocybin, LSD, etc.), the research is looking at the potential of these compounds to treat:

  1. mental health and associated conditions like depression, anxiety and PTSD
  2. neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease
  3. migraines and cluster headaches. Researchers are also looking into their potential application as anti-inflammatory molecules.

Presently, there are three large scale clinical trials (and countless more academic studies) being conducted using psychedelics. These large-scale studies, which are being pursued by MAPS, USONA and Compass Pathways (a UK corporation) have each been granted “breakthrough treatment” status by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is reflective of the importance the agency places on the outcomes. These studies are looking at the use of MDMA for PTSD and psilocybin (a synthetic version) for major depressive disorder and treatment-resistant depression, respectively.

LL: Are there parallels you can draw between cannabis and psychedelics?

Certainly, there are some parallels between cannabis and psychedelics. But they don’t run as deep as many might think. The most obvious parallel is that both are stigmatized medicines, for political or other reasons, and the use and academic study around them has been restricted for a long time, and only now are they coming back to light. In addition, both cannabis and psychedelics challenge some of the typical protocols around medicine. The therapeutic effect of cannabis, for instance, is thought to result from the interplay of many different molecules and cannabinoids; contrast this with most pharmaceutical drugs which involve a single molecule, or a few molecules working in concert.

For psychedelics, they depart from conventional medicine because the therapeutic effects results from the interplay of the drugs with psychotherapy. This interplay of pharmacology and psychotherapy is different than most allopathic medicine where a drug is typically used as a standalone treatment. Beyond these two similarities, psychedelics and cannabis are quite different. How they work on the body and the brain, how they are (or should be administered) and what makes them effective have few similarities. For instance, cannabis is often self-administered and typically used to manage symptoms. Psychedelics are, or should be, administered under the care and watch of a qualified professional in a setting that is safe and appropriate for therapeutic breakthroughs. Moreover, psychedelics (when used in a mental health context) help people by addressing the underlying causes of the condition, whereas cannabis simply alleviates some of the symptoms of the disease but doesn’t usually address the root cause.

LL: Could you tell us more about some of the types of psychedelics currently being investigated?

Right now, most of the clinical research is on MDMA (which is the active ingredient in ecstasy) and psilocybin (which is the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms”). The research on these two molecules is focusing on how they may be used to treat PTSD and depression, respectively, when used in conjunction with psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. Although the focus for these drugs is on the treatment of mental health conditions, some researchers are interested in further investigating their ability to fight neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, as well as migraines and cluster headaches. Others still are looking at them for their anti-inflammatory properties.

Ronan Levy was speaking to Laura Elizabeth Lansdowne, Senior Science Writer for Technology Networks.