Are psychedelics on the brink of revolutionizing psychiatry? Best-selling author hopes so
“It wasn’t ever in my life plan to write a book about psychedelics,” quipped Michael Pollan, renowned author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food,” as he spoke Wednesday evening to an overflowing Fowler Hall. Pollan has written five bestsellers — one of which (“The Omnivore’s Dilemma”) was among the 10 best books of 2006 by The New York Times and The Washington Post.
In his new book “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence,” Pollan explains that by the time he was in college, a widespread terror over psychedelics already prevailed. So, when he started hearing researchers talk about the healing power of psychedelics in 2006, he was intrigued.
And an enthusiastic Purdue University crowd listened as Pollan sought to break down the taboo associated with what had once been known prior to 1950 as a psychiatric wonder drug. The hour-long presentation, called WHAT IF Psychedelics Could Heal?, was an Ideas Festival event in connection with Purdue’s 150th anniversary celebration.
Unraveling the taboo
Bill Wilson, cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous, is known for losing his addiction in a spiritual experience and using his process to found the organization that has helped millions of men and women recover from alcoholism. What most people don’t know, Pollan says, is that this spiritual experience occurred when he was administered a plant-derived alkaloid with hallucinogenic properties in 1934. He explored the idea of incorporating LSD into the AA process, but his partners strongly disagreed as the use of a mind-altering substance could confuse their message.
And a few myths still shroud the public’s understanding of psychedelics. For example, most people would assume they are addictive or carry a risk of overdose. Most don’t appear to cause organ damage or toxicity, however, and they don’t appear to be addictive, Pollan says. “Rats in a cage presented with a lever to administer drugs like cocaine will press it over and over until they die. But rats only request LSD once. And never again,” Pollan said to laughter.
Referencing recent studies at New York University and Johns Hopkins University, he argues that patients suffering from various mental illnesses can even be cured completely after one or two sessions of psychedelic-aided therapy.
Then why the controversy? As psychedelics’ popularity soared in the 1960s, accidents happened. Psychotic breaks occurred. People overdosed on drugs they’d mistaken for LSD. By 1970, Nixon’s administration passed The Controlled Substances Act, and psychedelics were labeled as a substance with no redeeming purpose, not to be used for any reason. This ended all legitimate research in the field.
Purdue professor keeps it alive in ‘dark time’
Dr. David Nichols, who introduced Pollan Wednesday night, joined Purdue as an assistant professor of chemistry in 1974. He was studying what hardly anyone else in the world would. “It was a dark time in the drug war. The overwhelming consensus seemed to be that the psychedelic agents were just useless drugs of abuse,” Nichols said. “I, however, did not subscribe to that belief.”
Nichols was fortunate to secure funding for his research throughout his career at Purdue which, he notes, turned out to be critical in keeping the field alive. In 1992, Nichols attended a Food and Drug Administration meeting, at which the FDA decided that “properly designed studies with appropriate approvals could again be initiated.”
The problem now was supply. “Even if a researcher could obtain approval to carry out a human study with a psychedelic, there was no company willing to manufacture them,” Nichols said. That was when he was approached by representatives of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. They wanted to know if his laboratory had the willingness and the ability to produce MDMA (ecstasy) in order to supply human clinical studies.
His laboratory did, and they did. The direct result was the FDA giving breakthrough therapy approval for MDMA use in treating PTSD. The ball started rolling. His laboratory also supplied DMT to Dr. Rick Strassman at the University of New Mexico. Strassman went on to publish that work and wrote the influential book “DMT: The Spirit Molecule.” Dr. Roland Griffiths at Johns Hopkins needed psilocybin (the active component in “magic” mushrooms). That same batch Nichols created was used in Griffiths’ study of psilocybin-aided therapy of cancer patients who were experiencing end-of-life existential crises.
The need for something new
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, an estimated 16.1 million American adults suffer from Major Depressive Disorder. “There are very few tools in psychiatry,” Pollan said. “They’re losing their effectiveness, and the rates of depression are exploding.”
Nichols says the need stretches even further. “There are no effective medical treatments for alcoholism. I recently met a young man from New York who was an alcoholic and completely lost his desire to drink after a psilocybin treatment. He said it saved his life. How many more lives can we save?”
The 150th Ideas Festival topic landed on a receptive audience. Junior Alex Angel, a triple major in botany, biochemistry and history who attended Wednesday’s event, says ideas like this are the reason he came to Purdue. In high school, Angel suffered a series of fractures in his feet followed by a litany of subsequent medical complications. His recovery sparked a passion for something new in health care. “It’s led me down this path of attending conferences, listening to a lot of podcasts and reading some of the same literature that he (Pollan) referenced tonight. It was a nice synthesis of what I’m already looking into.”
Junior Chris Schorr had a different starting point. A double major in chemical engineering and biochemistry, he was more skeptical.
“I thought, psychedelics? That’s a no-go,” he said. “But now, I think it shows promise. I was surprised that using something natural like a mushroom can potentially help mitigate mental illness. It’s really exciting.”
And the excitement is real. Pollan explained the three stages of FDA approval. MDMA and psilocybin are both well into that process — MDMA is currently in Stage 3, and psilocybin in Stage 2, which only puts psilocybin roughly five years out from physicians legally prescribing it, less than that for MDMA.
In the end, Pollan said the response to the topic of this book, as opposed to his others, has been unexpected. “Someone asked me recently, ‘What’s it like going from being the Food Guy to being the Psychedelic Guy?’ Being the Food Guy, you go to a restaurant and the chef brings something out for you. But with this …” he paused. “I get tons of emails and letters, and they’re heartbreaking. ‘My son has struggled with alcoholism for years,’ or ‘My wife has suffered from depression for 25 years.’ And I can’t offer anything. People are just going to have to hold on.”