Explained: How psychedelics are making a comeback in the world of medicine
On July 13, there was a rainy sky over the city of Mannheim in southern Germany. But, despite the uninspiring weather, it was a day of hope for millions of people with depression, as the first patients of a research project conducted by the Central Institute of Mental Health were to have a psychedelic experience.
They wore headbands and headphones that played music and were accompanied by two therapists. The hallucinogen used for the inner journey is called psilocybin.
This active ingredient was isolated about 60 years ago. This gives magic mushrooms their “magic”, that is, their mind-altering effect. And it has been banned almost all over the world, including in Germany, for more than half a century.
Even for the Mannheim researchers, “obtaining the substance turned out to be the biggest obstacle.” This is according to the researcher and professor of psychiatry Gerhard Gründer.
“There aren’t many manufacturers in the world from whom you can get such a substance in the quality you need. It was a long and laborious process, ”he said.
But this laborious process is becoming more and more common. Hallucinogenic travel has long ceased to be purely the recreational pastime of hippies. A growing number of scientific studies point to the potential of psilocybin-assisted therapy to treat depressed patients, even those for whom other therapies have been exhausted. The Mannheim study, with a total of 144 patients, is now large enough that Gründer “expects statistically sound conclusions”.
Depression is a common illness
According to estimates from the World Health Organization, around 300 million people around the world are living with depression. In Germany, that number is estimated at 5 million, and the Ministry of Health has called it a “widespread disease”.
A conservative estimate is that about one in five patients cannot be helped by conventional treatment methods. “There is a huge need,” said Gründer, adding that his institute was almost overwhelmed with patient demands.
In conventional therapies, patients are treated with daily doses of antidepressants. The new approach is fundamentally different.
“Here it is about taking this substance once or twice,” said Gründer. “It’s a very disruptive therapy that fits into a psychotherapeutic program.”
Subjects of previous studies reported life-changing experiences and significantly improved mental states, and were even able to stop taking their antidepressants, often a condition that lasted for several months after the healing journey. The prospect of being able to dramatically improve the condition of severely depressed people with just a few psychedelic sessions is worth more than 2 million euros ($ 2.3 million) in funding to the Ministry of Education and Research.
The fact that public money is now also pouring into psilocybin research in Germany shows that psychedelic research is slowly moving from the margins to mainstream medicine.
Psychedelics are back to what they were in the 1950s and 1960s, at the center of psychiatric, medical and psychological research.
International meeting of experts in Berlin
This could be seen in mid-September in Berlin, during the Insight 2021 conference, organized by the Mind Foundation. According to its website, the foundation advocates “the evidence-based, safe and legal use of the psychedelic experience in medicine and in society.” The meeting place of the International Psychedelic Research Center is Charité Berlin, one of the most prestigious medical institutions in Germany.
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For four days, participants discussed neurological processes, compared the effects of LSD, psilocybin and other drugs with diagrams, and presented the state of research in a wide variety of areas. Even an employee of the German drug approval authority, the Federal Drug and Medical Device Authority, was there.
“We have succeeded in de-stigmatizing the subject; a discourse has emerged, ”said Andrea Jungaberle, co-founder of the Mind Foundation, in summary. “It remains to be seen how this discourse will affect day-to-day medical affairs. “
Experts are already enthusiastic. “How ecstasy and psilocybin are turning psychiatry upside down”, headlined the scientific magazine Nature at the beginning of the year.
Psilocybin on the stock market
A growing number of companies are also interested in it. If they were successful, psilocybin, the active ingredient in ecstasy MDMA, and other substances would soon be used across the board to treat depression, drug addiction, and a range of other illnesses. At least this is the objective of the biotechnology holding company ATAI Life Sciences, owned by the German investor Christian Angermayer.
Angermayer has spoken about his own experiences with psilocybin in German media, including the Handelsblatt and Wirtschaftswoche newspapers – and this summer he took his company public in New York. Just three years after its founding, the psychedelic holding company is already worth more than $ 2 billion.
ATAI’s holdings include Compass Pathways, a UK company that has developed its own synthetic psilocybin. Compass Pathways is currently conducting a Phase 2 trial with the drug involving more than 200 patients at 22 sites in 10 countries, currently the largest psilocybin clinical trial in the world. The company, which is also listed on the Nasdaq in New York City, has been valued at over $ 1 billion after just five years of existence.
The Berlin Mind Foundation register shows that the “boom in travel therapy” has allowed an entire industry to flourish. It lists around 130 companies in the psychedelic industry, from A Whole New High, which offers psilocybin retreats in the Netherlands, to Wavepaths, which specializes in sounding good through headphones for an inner journey.
Even Andrea Jungaberle isn’t quite comfortable with the rapid development. “Our best friend and our biggest enemy is the hype,” she says soberly, promoting an “appropriate approach between demonization and transfiguration”.
Swiss psychotherapist Peter Gasser, who has worked with LSD and MDMA for 30 years, shares this assessment.
“This rhythm almost scares me,” he said. “This scaling up of small niche treatments: just a few patients per study, now you’re already thinking in terms of the millions.” Gasser fears that the quality of the processing will suffer “because it is perceived as too technological or too schematic”.