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Older Psychedelic Users Report Fewer Depressive Symptoms

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Psychedelics research in older populations

Psychedelics research is in the spotlight right now. An increasing number of clinical trials evaluating psychedelics are entering ClinicalTrials.gov, and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s upcoming decision on whether to approve MDMA-assisted therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is eagerly anticipated. According to a 2020 report, the psychedelics drug market is estimated to reach a staggering $10.75 billion by 2027.

Despite the field’s resurgence, there are few clinical studies that incorporate older participants, according to physician–gerontologist, Kallol Kumar Bhattacharyya, who is currently a research fellow at Utah State University and a former PhD student at the University of South Florida (USF). This age bracket should not be excluded from psychedelics research, Bhattacharyya believes, as age-related conditions can adversely affect cognition and mental health.

Alongside Kaeleigh Fearn, former student in aging sciences at the USF, Bhattacharyya sought to understand the association between psychedelic drug usage and cognitive functions in middle-aged and older adults. Their research is published in Gerontology and Geriatric Medicine.

“Not much clinical research has been conducted considering the impact of classic psychedelics and other hallucinogenic compounds on cognitive functions, particularly episodic memory and executive function, and depression in middle aged and older adults,” the researchers said.

Fearn and Bhattacharyya analyzed data from 3,294 participants, aged 42–92 years (55% women) and mostly (90%) White, taking part in the Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) study. MIDUS participants were asked to self-report whether they had used any of the following substances in the last 12 months: LSD or other hallucinogens (such as Peyote, Ecstasy, Mescaline, etc.) or marijuana.

What is the MIDUS study?

The MIDUS study started in 1995 when a multidisciplinary team of researchers decided to explore the influences of psychological and social factors on age-related health in a large cohort of individuals in the US. Since 1995, MIDUS has received funding from the likes of the National Institute on Aging to extend the study to include longitudinal follow-ups.

Participants’ responses were analyzed in conjunction with data on their episodic memory and executive function, which had been collected using a variety of tests, including the Brief Test of Adult Cognition by Telephone (BTACT) and immediate and delayed recall tests. “We also considered depressive symptoms that persisted for two/more weeks in the past 12 months based on a mean score on the 7-item DEPCON scale in MIDUS that was administered by telephone,” the researchers described.

“Population aging is causing a significant increase in mental and physical health problems that negatively impact the quality of life of older adults,” Bhattacharyya and Fearn said. “Many current treatment options have proved to be ineffective and lead to even worse health outcomes. Alternative therapies for age-related diseases are necessary because there are ramifications of consuming various prescription medications.”

Psychedelic use associated with improved cognitive function

205 participants, aged 62 on average, reported using LSD and/or other hallucinogens in the last 12 months in total. “Psychedelic use was found to be higher in younger and women participants, those who were separated/divorced and never married, unemployed, tobacco and alcohol users and participants with more chronic conditions,” Fearn and Bhattacharyya said.

After controlling for social demographic factors and health characteristics, self-reported psychedelic use was found to be associated with higher scores on tests assessing cognitive function, but not episodic memory.

“The current findings corroborate the existing literature establishing mixed effects concerning why psychedelic use revealed differences in episodic versus executive cognitive functions,” Bhattacharyya and Fearn said.

These mixed effects could be because executive functions are better preserved throughout aging compared to episodic memory, they acknowledged. Or psychedelic users might just happen to inherently possess characteristics that make them better performers on cognitive tasks.

There is promising data from clinical trials testing hallucinogenic compounds, particularly psilocybin, for the treatment of major depressive disorder (MDD). Such trials are designed to effectively measure the drug’s efficacy and to protect the participants’ safety; they typically combine psilocybin administration with therapy from a trained professional to integrate the experience. In this study, psychedelic users self-reported fewer depressive symptoms compared to non-users.

Considering that depression can lead to other comorbidities in later life, including dementia, this finding is encouraging, Fearn and Bhattacharyya noted. However, much of the psychedelic use reported by the MIDUS participants appeared to be for “off-label, recreational purposes,” they said, preventing the researchers from capturing data on form, frequency and dosage.

Decriminalize psychedelics research

It’s well established that researching the effects of psychedelics on the human brain and body is challenging, not least because these drugs are considered illegal in many corners of the world. Bhattacharyya and Fearn’s study has limitations – including the fact it does not establish causality – which the researchers acknowledge. But it represents a starting point for exploring how older populations are using psychedelics and how this could impact cognition.

This work is essential, Bhattacharyya and Fearn said, calling for more longitudinal studies to be conducted in this space: “Addressing the mental health implications of physical health conditions in older adults are vital for preventing neurocognitive deterioration, prolonging independence and improving the quality of life. More longitudinal research is essential utilizing psychedelics as an alternative therapy examining late-life cognitive benefits.”

Reference: Fearn K, Bhattacharyya KK. Is use of psychedelic drugs a risk or protective factor for late-life cognitive decline? GGM. 2024;10. doi: 10.1177/23337214241250108