Posts Tagged ‘psilocybin’

By Rafi Letzter

“Magic” mushrooms seem to have passed their genes for mind-altering substances around among distant species as a survival mechanism: By making fungus-eating insects “trip,” the bugs become less hungry — and less likely to feast on mushrooms.

That’s the upshot of a paper published Feb. 27 in the journal Evolution Letters by a team of biologists at The Ohio State University and the University of Tennessee.

The researchers studied a group of mushrooms that all produce psilocybin — the chemical agent that causes altered states of consciousness in human beings — but aren’t closely related. The scientists found that the clusters of genes that caused the ‘shrooms to fill themselves with psilocybin were very similar to one another, more similar even than clusters of genes found in closely related species of mushrooms.

That’s a sign, the researchers wrote, that the genes weren’t inherited from a common ancestor, but instead were passed directly between distant species in a phenomenon known as “horizontal gene transfer” or HGT.

HGT isn’t really one process, as the biologist Alita Burmeister explained in the journal Evolution, Medicine and Public Health in 2015. Instead, it’s the term for a group of more or less well-understood processes — like viruses picking up genes from one species and dropping them in another — that can cause groups of genes to jump between species.

However, HGT is believed to be pretty uncommon in complex, mushroom-forming fungi, turning up much more often in single-celled organisms.

When a horizontally transferred gene takes hold and spreads after landing in a new species, the paper’s authors wrote, scientists believe that’s a sign that the gene offered a solution to some crisis the organism’s old genetic code couldn’t solve on its own.

The researchers suggested — but didn’t claim to prove — that the crisis in this case was droves of insects feasting on the defenseless mushrooms. Most of the species the scientists studied grew on animal dung and rotting wood — insect-rich environments (and environments full of opportunities to perform HGT). Psilocybin, the scientists wrote, might suppress insects’ appetites or otherwise induce the bugs to stop munching quite so much mush’.


By Richard Schiffman

In one of the largest and most rigorous clinical investigations of psychedelic drugs to date, researchers at Johns Hopkins University and New York University have found that a single dose of psilocybin—the psychoactive compound in “magic” mushrooms—substantially diminished depression and anxiety in patients with advanced cancer.

Psychedelics were the subject of a flurry of serious medical research in the 1960s, when many scientists believed some of the mind-bending compounds held tremendous therapeutic promise for treating a number of conditions including severe mental health problems and alcohol addiction. But flamboyant Harvard psychology professor Timothy Leary—one of the top scientists involved—started aggressively promoting LSD as a consciousness expansion tool for the masses, and the youth counterculture movement answered the call in a big way. Leary lost his job and eventually became an international fugitive. Virtually all legal research on psychedelics shuddered to a halt when federal drug policies hardened in the 1970s.

The decades-long research blackout ended in 1999 when Roland Griffiths of Johns Hopkins was among the first to initiate a new series of studies on psilocybin. Griffiths has been called the grandfather of the current psychedelics research renaissance, and a 21st-century pioneer in the field—but the soft-spoken investigator is no activist or shaman/showman in the mold of Leary. He’s a scientifically cautious clinical pharmacologist and author of more than 300 studies on mood-altering substances from coffee to ketamine.

Much of Griffiths’ fascination with psychedelics stems from his own mindfulness meditation practice, which he says sparked his interest in altered states of consciousness. When he started administering psilocybin to volunteers for his research, he was stunned that more than two-thirds of the participants rated their psychedelic journey one of the most important experiences of their lives.

Griffiths believes that psychedelics are not just tools for exploring the far reaches of the human mind. He says they show remarkable potential for treating conditions ranging from drug and alcohol dependence to depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

They may also help relieve one of humanity’s cruelest agonies: the angst that stems from facing the inevitability of death. In research conducted collaboratively by Griffiths and Stephen Ross, clinical director of the NYU Langone Center of Excellence on Addiction, 80 patients with life-threatening cancer in Baltimore and New York City were given laboratory-synthesized psilocybin in a carefully monitored setting, and in conjunction with limited psychological counseling. More than three-quarters reported significant relief from depression and anxiety—improvements that remained during a follow-up survey conducted six months after taking the compound, according to the double-blind study published December 1 in The Journal of Psychopharmacology.

“It is simply unprecedented in psychiatry that a single dose of a medicine produces these kinds of dramatic and enduring results,” Ross says. He and Griffiths acknowledge that psychedelics may never be available on the drugstore shelf. But the scientists do envision a promising future for these substances in controlled clinical use. In a wide-ranging interview, Griffiths told Scientific American about the cancer study and his other work with psychedelics—a field that he says could eventually contribute to helping ensure our survival as a species.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

What were your concerns going into the cancer study?
The volunteers came to us often highly stressed and demoralized by their illness and the often-grueling medical treatment. I felt very cautious at first, wondering if this might not re-wound people dealing with the painful questions of death and dying. How do we know that this kind of experience with this disorienting compound wouldn’t exacerbate that? It turns out that it doesn’t. It does just the opposite. The experience appears to be deeply meaningful spiritually and personally, and very healing in the context of people’s understanding of their illness and how they manage that going forward.

Could you describe your procedure?
We spent at least eight hours talking to people about their cancer, their anxiety, their concerns and so on to develop good rapport with them before the trial. During the sessions there was no specific psychological intervention—we were just inviting people to lie on the couch and explore their own inner experience.

What did your research subjects tell you about that experience?
There is something about the core of this experience that opens people up to the great mystery of what it is that we don’t know. It is not that everybody comes out of it and says, ‘Oh, now I believe in life after death.’ That needn’t be the case at all. But the psilocybin experience enables a sense of deeper meaning, and an understanding that in the largest frame everything is fine and that there is nothing to be fearful of. There is a buoyancy that comes of that which is quite remarkable. To see people who are so beaten down by this illness, and they start actually providing reassurance to the people who love them most, telling them ‘it is all okay and there is no need to worry’— when a dying person can provide that type of clarity for their caretakers, even we researchers are left with a sense of wonder.

Was this positive result universal?
We found that the response was dose-specific. The larger dose created a much larger response than the lower dose. We also found that the occurrence of mystical-type experiences is positively correlated with positive outcomes: Those who underwent them were more likely to have enduring, large-magnitude changes in depression and anxiety.

Did any of your volunteers experience difficulties?
There are potential risks associated with these compounds. We can protect against a lot of those risks, it seems, through the screening and preparation procedure in our medical setting. About 30 percent of our people reported some fear or discomfort arising sometime during the experience. If individuals are anxious, then we might say a few words, or hold their hand. It is really just grounding them in consensual reality, reminding them that they have taken psilocybin, that everything is going to be alright. Very often these short-lived experiences of psychological challenge can be cathartic and serve as doorways into personal meaning and transcendence—but not always.

Where do you go from here?
The Heffter Research Institute, which funded our study, has just opened a dialogue with the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) about initiating a phase 3 investigation. A phase 3 clinical trial is the gold standard for determining whether something is clinically efficacious and meets the standards that are necessary for it to be released as a pharmaceutical. Approval would be under very narrow and restrictive conditions initially. The drug might be controlled by a central pharmacy, which sends it to clinics that are authorized to administer psilocybin in this therapeutic context. So this is not writing a prescription and taking it home. The analogy would be more like an anesthetic being dispensed and managed by an anesthesiologist.

You are also currently conducting research on psilocybin and smoking.
We are using psilocybin in conjunction with cognitive behavioral therapy with cigarette smokers to see if these deeply meaningful experiences that can happen with psilocybin can be linked with the intention and commitment to quit smoking, among people who have failed repeatedly to do so. Earlier we ran an uncontrolled pilot study on that in 50 volunteers, in which we had 80 percent abstinence rates at six months. Now we are doing a controlled clinical trial in that population.

How do you account for your remarkable initial results?
People who have taken psilocybin appear to have more confidence in their ability to change their own behavior and to manage their addictions. Prior to this experience, quite often the individual feels that they have no freedom relative to their addiction, that they are hooked and they don’t have the capacity to change. But after an experience of this sort—which is like backing up and seeing the larger picture—they begin to ask themselves ‘Why would I think that I couldn’t stop cigarette smoking? Why would I think that this craving is so compelling that I have to give in to it?’ When the psilocybin is coupled with cognitive behavioral therapy, which is giving smokers tools and a framework to work on this, it appears to be very helpful.

You are also working with meditation practitioners. Are they having similar experiences?
We have done an unpublished study with beginning meditators. We found that psilocybin potentiates their engagement with their spiritual practice, and it appears to boost dispositional characteristics like gratitude, compassion, altruism, sensitivity to others and forgiveness. We were interested in whether the psilocybin used in conjunction with meditation could create sustained changes in people that were of social value. And that appears to be the case.

So it is actually changing personality?
Yes. That is really interesting because personality is considered to be a fixed characteristic; it is generally thought to be locked down in an individual by their early twenties. And yet here we are seeing significant increases in their “openness” and other pro-social dimensions of personality, which are also correlated with creativity, so this is truly surprising.

Do we know what is actually happening in the brain?
We are doing neuro-imaging studies. Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris’s group at Imperial College in London is also doing neuro-imaging studies. So it is an area of very active investigation. The effects are perhaps explained, at least initially, by changes in something [in the brain] called “the default mode network,” which is involved in self-referential processing [and in sustaining our sense of ego]. It turns out that this network is hyperactive in depression. Interestingly, in meditation it becomes quiescent, and also with psilocybin it becomes quiescent. This may correlate with the experience of clarity of coming into the present moment.

That is perhaps an explanation of the acute effects, but the enduring effects are much less clear, and I don’t think that we have a good handle on that at all. Undoubtedly it is going to be much more complex than just the default mode network, because of the vast interconnectedness of brain function.

What are the practical implications of this kind of neurological and therapeutic knowledge of psychedelics?
Ultimately it is not really about psychedelics. Science is going to take it beyond psychedelics when we start understanding the brain mechanisms underlying this and begin harnessing these for the benefit of humankind.

The core mystical experience is one of the interconnectedness of all people and things, the awareness that we are all in this together. It is precisely the lack of this sense of mutual caretaking that puts our species at risk right now, with climate change and the development of weaponry that can destroy life on the planet. So the answer is not that everybody needs to take psychedelics. It is to understand what mechanisms maximize these kinds of experiences, and to learn how to harness them so that we don’t end up annihilating ourselves.


Two new randomized and controlled trials show that just one dose of psilocybin—the compound in psychedelic mushrooms—can produce dramatic and long-lasting improvements in depression and anxiety symptoms.

The findings, published in The Journal of Psychopharmacology, are being hailed as unprecedented and potentially transformative for the treatment of psychiatric disorders.

“These findings, the most profound to date in the medical use of psilocybin, indicate it could be more effective at treating serious psychiatric diseases than traditional pharmaceutical approaches, and without having to take a medication every day,” said George R. Greer, MD, Medical Director of the Heffter Research Institute, which funded and reviewed the studies.

Psych Congress Steering Committee member Andrew Penn, RN, MS, NP, CNS, APRN-BC, said that if the findings can be replicated in larger studies, “we may be living witnesses to an event in psychiatry that is no less significant than when Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin.”

“These studies represent a new dawn of hope for our profession and our ability to help some of our most desperate patients, those whose lives are disrupted not only by cancer, but by the existential distress of dying, not only find relief from their suffering, but to find meaning in their illness,” said Penn, Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner at Kaiser Permanente in Redwood City, California.

The 2 studies were led by researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, and the New York University (NYU) Langone Medical Center in New York City. The participants in both trials had life-threatening cancer diagnoses and related mood disturbances.

Fifty-one adults participated in the double-blind Johns Hopkins study. They received a capsule of psilocybin in what is considered a moderate or high dose (22 or 30 mg/70 kg) during 1 of 2 treatment sessions. At the other session, they received a low dose of psilocybin as a control.

Researchers reported they had considerable relief from their anxiety or depression symptoms for up to 6 months. About 80% of the participants continued to show clinically significant decreases in symptoms 6 months after the final treatment session.

“The most interesting and remarkable finding is that a single dose of psilocybin, which lasts four to six hours, produced enduring decreases in depression and anxiety symptoms, and this may represent a fascinating new model for treating some psychiatric conditions,” says Roland Griffiths, PhD, professor of Behavioral Biology in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and Neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins medical school.

The NYU double-blind crossover study involved 29 participants, who all received tailored counseling, a 0.3 mg/kg dose of psilocybin at one of 2 treatment sessions, and a vitamin placebo at the other session. Eighty percent of the participants experienced relief for more than 6 months, researchers reported.

“That a drug administered once can have this effect for so long is unprecedented. We have never had anything like it in the psychiatric field,” said Stephen Ross, MD, principal investigator of the NYU study and director of substance abuse services in the Department of Psychiatry at the Langone Medical Center.

Psych Congress co-chair Charles Raison, MD, said he has “had the privilege of being involved in the next stages of the work to explore whether psilocybin holds true potential for treating depression and anxiety.”

“This has given me an insider’s view of this area of research and from that perspective I think there is a very good chance that psychedelic medicines—which were abandoned long ago by psychiatry—may hold promise as some of the more powerful treatments for emotional disorders that we will identify in the 21st century,” said Dr. Raison, Professor of Human Development and Family Studies and of Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The Journal of Psychopharmacology published 11 commentaries with the study results, which generally support the research into psilocybin and its use in a clinical setting, according to a Johns Hopkins statement.

Penn noted that “few mental health professionals trained in the last 4 decades know anything about these drugs, beyond their use as an intoxicant.”

“When the sun set on psychedelic drug research amidst the hysteria of the ‘drug war’ begun in the 1960s, the promise of these compounds, including psilocybin, was almost lost to history,” Penn said.

– Terri Airov


Synthetic psilocybin, a compound found in magic mushrooms, has been administered to cancer patients in a study at New York University. Researcher Anthony Bossis says many subjects report decreased depression and fear of death after their session. Although some patients do not report persistent positive feelings, none report persistent adverse effects. Photo: Bossis, NYU.

By John Horgan

Bossis, a psychologist at New York University, belongs to an intrepid cadre of scientists reviving research into psychedelics’ therapeutic potential. I say “reviving” because research on psychedelics thrived in the 1950s and 1960s before being crushed by a wave of anti-psychedelic hostility and legislation.

Psychedelics such as LSD, psilocybin and mescaline are still illegal in the U.S. But over the past two decades, researchers have gradually gained permission from federal and other authorities to carry out experiments with the drugs. Together with physicians Stephen Ross and Jeffrey Guss, Bossis has tested the potential of psilocybin—the primary active ingredient of “magic mushrooms”–to alleviate anxiety and depression in cancer patients.

Journalist Michael Pollan described the work of Bossis and others in The New Yorker last year. Pollan said researchers at NYU and Johns Hopkins had overseen 500 psilocybin sessions and observed “no serious adverse effects.” Many subjects underwent mystical experiences, which consist of “feelings of unity, sacredness, ineffability, peace and joy,” as well as the conviction that you have discovered “an objective truth about reality.”

Pollan’s report was so upbeat that I felt obliged to push back a bit, pointing out that not all psychedelic experiences—or mystical ones–are consoling. In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James emphasized that some mystics have “melancholic” or “diabolical” visions, in which ultimate reality appears terrifyingly alien and uncaring.

Taking psychedelics in a supervised research setting doesn’t entirely eliminate the risk of a bad trip. That lesson emerged from a study in the early 1990s by psychiatrist Rick Strassman, who injected dimethyltryptamine, DMT, into human volunteers.

From 1990 to 1995, Strassman supervised more than 400 DMT sessions involving 60 subjects. Many reported dissolving blissfully into a radiant light or sensing the presence of a loving god. But 25 subjects had “adverse effects,” including terrifying hallucinations of “aliens” that took the shape of robots, insects or reptiles. (For more on Strassman’s study, see this link:

Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann, who discovered LSD’s powers in 1943 and later synthesized psilocybin, sometimes expressed misgivings about psychedelics. When I interviewed him in 1999, he said psychedelics have enormous scientific, therapeutic and spiritual potential. He hoped someday people would take psychedelics in “meditation centers” to awaken their religious awe.

Yet in his 1980 memoir LSD: My Problem Child, Hofmann confessed that he occasionally regretted his role in popularizing psychedelics, which he feared represent “a forbidden transgression of limits.” He compared his discoveries to nuclear fission; just as fission threatens our fundamental physical integrity, so do psychedelics “attack the spiritual center of the personality, the self.”

I had these concerns in mind when I attended a recent talk by Bossis near New York University. A large, bearded man who exudes warmth and enthusiasm, Bossis couldn’t reveal details of the cancer-patient study, a paper on which is under review, but he made it clear that the results were positive.

Many subjects reported decreased depression and fear of death and “improved well-being” after their session. Some called the experience among the best of their lives, with spiritual implications. An atheist woman described feeling “bathed in God’s love.”

Bossis said psychedelic therapy could transform the way people die, making the experience much more meaningful. He quoted philosopher Victor Frankl, who said, “Man is not destroyed by suffering. He is destroyed by suffering without meaning.”

During the Q&A, I asked Bossis about bad trips. Wouldn’t it be awful, I suggested, if a dying patient’s last significant experience was negative? Bossis said he and his co-researchers were acutely aware of that risk. They minimized adverse reactions by managing the set (i.e., mindset, or expectations, of the subject) and setting (context of the session).

First, they screen patients for mental illness, eliminating those with, say, a family history of schizophrenia. Second, the researchers prepare patients for sessions, telling them to expect and explore rather than suppressing negative emotions, such as fear or grief. Third, the sessions take place in a safe, comfortable room, which patients can decorate with personal items, such as photographs or works of art. A researcher is present during sessions but avoids verbal interactions that might distract the patient from her inner journey. Patients and researchers generally talk about sessions the following day.

These methods seem to work. Some patients, to be sure, became frightened or melancholy. One dwelled on the horrors of the Holocaust, which had killed many members of his family, but he found the experience meaningful. Some patients did not emerge from their sessions with persistent positive feelings, Bossis said, but none reported persistent adverse effects.

Bossis has begun a new study that involves giving psilocybin to religious leaders, such as priests and rabbis. His hope is that these subjects will gain a deeper understanding of the mystical roots of their faiths.


by Tia Ghose

For Martijn Schirp, it’s a way to make an ordinary day just a little bit better.

A former poker player and recent graduate in interdisciplinary science in Amsterdam, Schirp has been experimenting with a new way to take psychedelic drugs: Called microdosing, it involves routinely taking a small fraction of a normal dose of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) or magic mushrooms.

Microdosing has gained a cult following amongst a small group of hallucinogen enthusiasts like Schirp, who now writes at Proponents report improvements in perception, mood and focus, minus the trippy tangerine trees and marmalade skies normally associated with psychedelics.

Schirp said he prefers to microdose when he’s immersed in creative or contemplative activities, such as writing, painting, meditating or doing yoga.

“It’s like the coffee to wake up the mind-body connection. When I notice it is working, depending on the dosage, time seems to be slowing down a bit, everything seems covered with a layer of extra significance,” Schirp told Live Science in an email.

Given his positive experiences with higher doses of psychedelics, “microdosing offered a way to get a taste of this without [the experience] completely overwhelming me,” Schirp said.

But while the effects Schirp and others describe are plausible from a physiological perspective, microdosing is uncharted territory, said Matt Johnson, a psychologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, who has studied the behavioral effects of psychedelic drugs. Scientists have yet to run a clinical trial to assess the effects (or lack thereof) of microdosing. Johnson added that taking a smaller dose of a psychedelic is safer than taking a large dose, but the way people tend to do it — regularly taking small doses every several days — could have long-term side effects.

Just a little bit

The idea of taking small doses of psychedelics has been around for a while. The inventor of LSD, Albert Hofmann, was known to microdose in his old age and told a friend that microdosing was an under-researched area. But microdosing gained greater visibility when James Fadiman, a psychologist and researcher at Sofia University in Palo Alto, California, described it in his book “The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide” (Park Street Press, 2011).

Since then, Fadiman has received about 50 anecdotal reports from microdosers around the world. Most report positive, barely perceptible shifts while microdosing, Fadiman said.

“What people say is that whatever they’re doing, they seem to be doing it a little better,” Fadiman told Live Science. “They’re a little kinder, a little bit nicer with their kids.”

People with creative jobs report improved focus and an ability to enter the state of flow more easily. Some report a desire to eat healthier or start meditating, Fadiman said.

“It’s like they tend to live a little better,” Fadiman said.

Still others report taking the teeny doses of psychedelics for psychiatric conditions, said Brad Burge, the director of marketing and communications at Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies in Santa Cruz, California, where scientists study the effect of psychedelics on medical conditions such as PTSD.

“I’ve heard anecdotally of people using it for depression, seasonal affective disorder, anxiety, OCD [obsessive compulsive disorder],” Burge told Live Science. “With microdoses, the point would be to create subtle changes in people’s psychopharmacology or experience, in much the same way as most traditional pharmaceuticals are used now.”

Plausible mechanism, no evidence

The effects people report with microdoses of LSD, psilocybin, DMT or other “classic” psychedelics aren’t completely implausible, Johnson said. All of these drugs work by activating a particular receptor in the brain known as the serotonin 5HT-2A receptor. This receptor fuels the release of the “feel-good” brain chemical, serotonin, which creates a domino effect in the brain that leads to many other brain changes.

At high doses, these drugs temporarily, but radically, reshape brain networks; for instance, one study found that magic mushrooms create a hyperconnected brain. But antidepressants like Prozac also target serotonin receptors, so it’s possible that a low, constant dose of a psychedelic might work in a similar manner, Johnson said.

Still, there’s absolutely no evidence to suggest microdosing works as people claim it does, Johnson said. The effects described are so subtle — on par with having the caffeine in a cup of coffee — that they “fall within that category of barely perceptible, and it’s right in the range where people can so easily fool themselves,” Johnson told Live Science. That means microdosing is particularly susceptible to the placebo effect, in which people taking a sugar pill who believe they’re taking a drug report perceptible effects, he said.

To prove that microdosing has an effect, psychedelics researchers would need to do a double-blind study, in which neither the people administering the drug nor the recipients know whether a particular participant is getting a microdose of a psychedelic or something inert, like a little sugar dissolved in water, Johnson said. Some groups of people are allegedly doing these trials — but because LSD is illegal, and is only approved for research use in a few small trials in a few locations, all of these people are off the grid and not publicizing their efforts, Fadiman said.

Unknown side effects

What’s more, microdosing could have side effects, Johnson said. The few microscopic grains of LSD — just 10 micrograms — typically used to microdose are too tiny to measure even on a professional laboratory scale, Johnson said. To get around this, people who microdose typically take a blotter paper laced with one hit of LSD, soak it in water and then drink some of the water. But since LSD is an illegal substance procured on the black market, there’s really no way to know exactly what you’re getting, Johnson said.

Even in the lab, with carefully measured doses of drugs administered in a controlled environment, Johnson has found substantial variation in the way that people react to the same dose. Combined, those two uncertainties mean people may not be able to reliably microdose, he said.

“Someone might be expecting a kind of sparkly day, just a really productive day at work — and next thing you know, they’re grasping hold to their office chair wondering why the world is dissolving,” Johnson said.

Schirp, for instance, has occasionally had negative microdosing experiences.

“At times, the experience was still too overwhelming to be productive — I just wanted to lay down or take a walk,” Schirp said.

Beyond that possible experience, the long-term risks of the drug are unknown. The risk of taking a single, tiny dose of LSD or psilocybin is going to be smaller than the risk of taking one big hit, Johnson said. But even the most dedicated psychonauts don’t typically trip daily or even weekly, Johnson said. By contrast, people who are microdosing report using the drugs every three or four days, he said.

Such frequent use could have unknown, long-term side effects, he said.

“You’re tinkering with the system that is involved with depressive systems, but in unexplored ways,” Johnson said.


Deep in the Amazon rainforest, a group of veterans chokes down a gritty, gut-wrenching shot of liquid absolution. They try to drink away their severe mental disturbances, but not the way you drink away your ex-girlfriend with a bottle of whiskey. They’re looking for a cure. Their leader: 27-year-old retired infantryman Ryan LeCompte. Their goal: to hallucinate away their terrible memories.

From a few fringe psychiatrists to veterans like LeCompte, there is a budding belief that extreme hallucination can save our brains from themselves. Several organizations, including the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), and adventurous doctors around the world test out psychedelics such as MDMA, psilocybin and ayahuasca for possible medical uses.

Ayahuasca is a devilish brew. It’s made of vines and roots found in the Amazon; drinking it equals a heavy psychedelic experience and profuse vomiting. “As the shapes and colors continued to move about, they sometimes converged to create the face of a woman, who of course I immediately labeled as Aya,” says an ayahuasca user on the underground drug website Erowid. Aya is known as the spirit or soul of the ayahuasca world. LeCompte described having kaleidoscope vision during his ayahuasca trip, and he even began to dance and went to look at leaves and other pieces of the nature around him at points.

Ryan LeCompte is a scruffy former Marine who, today, is studying at the eccentric Naropa University in Boulder. The school was founded by Tibetan Buddhist teacher and Oxford University scholar Chögyam Trungpa and includes schools such as the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. The beat poets used to flock to there. It’s a Buddhist-inspired school infamous for attracting people who are looking for an alternative education in an attractive location.

For his part, LeCompte didn’t ever face a PTSD diagnosis during his time in service. But he’s lucky, because many of his peers did. What he did experience still shook him. In 2008, while stationed in 8th and I Marine Barracks in Washington, D.C., LeCompte walked into the room of a good friend in his barracks one morning to find Sgt. Jorge Leon-Alcivar dead—a suicide. He was not the only Marine LeCompte encountered who would take his own life. At least 22 veterans kill themselves every day. Leon-Alcivar’s death was the final straw, and three years later LeCompte retired from the Marines to start fighting PTSD. He received his End of Active Service honorable discharge after four years in the Marines and didn’t look back.

LeCompte began traveling to the VA hospital in Birmingham, Alabama, where he was living, to learn what was ailing disturbed veterans and soldiers. He hung around in waiting rooms, cautiously approaching the soldiers, wheedling their stories out. But it didn’t take much persuasion; the men were “so beat,” he recalls, that they opened up to him instantly. This took course over several years, during his free time, while he did contract work building helicopters.

Soon, LeCompte had amassed the information from about 100 cases in Birmingham; Veterans spilled almost everything to him: their meds, their dosages, their choice of therapy. It all added up. Over and over again, he discovered his peers were taking the same types of medicines such Zoloft and Paxil, in the same dosages, 50 to 200mg of Zoloft a day or 20 to 60mg of Paxil a day were common, and with the same form of EMDR therapy. EMDR is a somatic therapy that follows eye movements and dream states.

LeCompte didn’t see anything wrong with the therapy. How about the drugs? Yeah, it’s probably the drugs. LeCompte’s complaints ring of an old story these days in American psychiatry: we’re too drugged up, we’re overdosed and overdiagnosed. It’s a complaint plenty of professionals agree with, but only a handful of psychiatrists are taking alternate routes. “There are some veterans who actually do respond to those meds, but it’s rare,” Dr. Sue Sisley, an expert on PTSD in veterans who has studied treating the illness with marijuana, told ATTN:. “The vets who respond to the standard FDA approved meds like Zoloft or Paxil is probably less than 10 percent. The rest come in looking like zombies.”

LeCompte had tried almost all the drugs they were offering, from “highly addictive anxiolytics like Klonopin, and … Prozac as an anti-depressant and Ambien for a sleep aid,” he said. “These different drugs sort of mixed together in a cocktail just as a recipe for disaster,” he said. He never tried to contact U.S. Veteran’s Affairs to inform them of these problems, because he didn’t think they would do anything about it. VA psychiatrists like Dr. Basimah Khulusi of Missouri have been fired for simply refusing to increase medication dosages that they didn’t think their patients needed shows the kind of system LeCompte was dealing with.

LeCompte looked into how these drugs work and found they’re just mind blockers, they’re not helping you deal with your problems. “Medications do not entirely eliminate symptoms but provide a symptom reduction and are sometimes more effective when used in conjunction with an ongoing program of trauma specific psychotherapy,” according to the VA website.

LeCompte looked at research from people like Julie D. Megler, watched videos of the academic conferences focusing on psychedelics called Psychedemia from Penn State and went on websites like Erowid to look at ayahuasca experiences people had posted to the site. What did he learn? “Something like ayahuasca or MDMA is used to bridge severed connections in the brain that trauma plays a big part in creating,” he said.

“Ayahuasca opens the limbic pathways of the brain to affect the emotional core of the trauma in a way similar to affective psychotherapy for trauma, and also impacts higher cortical areas … to allow the patient to assign a new context to their trauma,” wrote brain experts J. L. Nielson and J. D. Megler, in the book The Therapeutic Use of Ayahuasca.

Soon, LeCompte started having conversations with veterans and began informing people of the possible benefits of ayahuasca, wondering if anyone else was daring enough to start considering the idea of drinking a shot of psychedelics for their PTSD. LeCompte had never tried ayahuasca, but he was willing to try anything to help his comrades. Eventually he heard of an ayahuasca retreat, the Phoenix Ayahuasca retreat in Peru, where he could test out his medicine.

It took him six months to do what any sane person would do before planning a group outing to South America to hallucinate in a forest together… he started a nonprofit. Its name? The Veterans for Entheogenic Therapy. Other vets started to find him; some were suicidal, exhausted by the daily challenge of deciding whether or not they wanted to be alive. He didn’t know them, but he felt he intimately understood – or at least sympathized with – their minds. He rounded up a trip: five other vets, and him. MAPS helped pay for two of the trips for veterans who couldn’t afford it, and the rest paid for themselves.

The prep was strangely regimented: LeCompte had to ensure the veterans were off their medication for a month leading up to the trip; anti-depressants plus ayahuasca equal a lethal mix. That task amounted to phone therapy and keeping a close eye on everyone: He called the guys every day, even their friends and family, to make sure the men had quit their pills, he said. But he made it work. The families may have thought the idea was strange, but LeCompte says none of them tried to stop their family members because of their knowledge that the drugs weren’t helping treat the PTSD symptoms, and they just wanted to help their family.

The veterans flew into Iquitos, Peru, from Lima – from Iquitos, they sat in a van all the way to the Amazon, winding past motorbikes and rickshaws “on back roads in the middle of bum fuck,” LeCompte says.

Then their lives collided and things got weird.

They were stationed for 10 days at Phoenix Ayahuasca. The camp was little more than a set of huts in the jungle, made from wood and leaves. They would drink the ayahuasca on ceremony nights and be led through their experience by the shaman, and they would stay in their personal huts on days off to reflect on their experiences alone.

LeCompte said the ayahuasca drink “tastes like shit.” The shaman leading the experience dressed in all white scrub-like clothes, like a nurse lost in the jungle. After you drink the brew, the shaman’s job is simply to observe. He diagnoses: Is anyone losing it? Some people have been known to begin convulsing. Is this the moment they need to hear a song that will send them burrowing into a different dimension? “I don’t know how he does it. It’s beyond my rational mind,” LeCompte said. “It” amounts to singing, blowing smoke on trippers’ faces and using instruments like a rattler to change their state of mind.

For his part, LeCompte only wanted two out of the four drink ceremonies, since they were so powerful. It certainly wasn’t about the PTSD for LeCompte; he was trying to get past his experiences of fallen friends and broken relationships. He says just returning home to family and friends from military service or an ayahuasca trip is a difficult experience of its own. “You’re a changed person and there’s no doubting or denying that.”

“Most people get a cut, and they put a bandaid on it,” he said. “These people have had these wounds for so long that they’ve become infected. The infection can’t be fought off with a bandaid.” LeCompte sees ayahuasca as an antibiotic, not a bandaid.

LeCompte is now planning to do an official study to look at how ayahuasca could treat PTSD, which will serve as his thesis for Naropa University. It is being sponsored by MAPS, and it will focus on 12 veterans with treatment resistant PTSD who will try using ayahuasca to treat it. The plan is to conduct the study over 10 days in early 2016. LeCompte is currently running an Indiegogo campaign to fund research and education around the medicinal use of ayahuasca.


Psychedelics were highly popular hallucinogenic substances used for recreational purposes back in the 1950s and 1960s. They were also widely used for medical research looking into their beneficial impact on several psychiatric disorders, including anxiety and depression. In 1967, however, they were classified as a Class A, Schedule I substance and considered to be among the most dangerous drugs with no recognized clinical importance. The use of psychedelics has since been prohibited.

Psychiatrist and honorary lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, at Psychiatrist and honorary lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, at King’s College London, James Rucker, MRCPsych, is proposing to reclassify and improve access to psychedelics in order to conduct more research on their therapeutic benefits. He believes in the potential of psychedelics so much that late last month he took to the pages of the prestigious journal the BMJ to make his case. He wrote that psychedelics should instead be considered Schedule II substances which would allow a “comprehensive, evidence based assessment of their therapeutic potential.”

“The Western world is facing an epidemic of mental health problems with few novel therapeutic prospects on the horizon,” Rucker told Psychiatry Advisor, justifying why studying psychedelics for treating psychiatric illnesses is so important.

Rucker recognizes that the illicit substance may be harmful to some people, especially when used in a recreational and uncontrolled context. He cited anecdotal reports of the substance’s disabling symptoms, such as long-term emotionally charged flashbacks. However, he also believes that psychedelic drugs can have positive outcomes in other respects.

“The problem at the moment,” he argued, “is that we don’t know who would benefit and who wouldn’t. The law does a good job of preventing us from finding out.”

From a biological perspective, psychedelics act as an agonist, a substance that combines with a receptor and initiates a physiological response to a subtype of serotonin known as 5HT2a. According to Rucker, this process influences the balance between inhibitory and excitatory neurotransmitters.

“The psychedelics may invoke a temporary state of neural plasticity within the brain, as a result of which the person may experience changes in sensory perception, thought processing and self-awareness,” Rucker speculated. He added that psychedelic drugs can act as a catalyst that stirs up the mind to elicit insights into unwanted cycles of feelings, thoughts and behaviors.

“These cycles can then be faced, expressed, explored, interpreted, accepted and finally integrated back into the person’s psyche with the therapist’s help,” he explained. Reclassifying psychedelics could mean that the mechanism by which these substances can help with anxiety, depression and psychiatric symptoms could be studied and understood better.

Several experts in the field of drug misuse have disagreed strongly with Rucker’s proposals in this area, and are quick to refute his findings and recommendations. Nora Volkow, MD, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), emphasized the fact that psychedelics can distort a person’s perception of time, motion, colors, sounds and self. “These drugs can disrupt a person’s ability to think and communicate rationally, or even to recognize reality, sometimes resulting in bizarre or dangerous behavior,” she wrote on a NIDA webpage dealing with hallucinogens and dissociative drugs.

“Hallucinogenic drugs are associated with psychotic-like episodes that can occur long after a person has taken the drug,” she added. Volkow also says that, despite being classified as a Schedule I substance, the development of new hallucinogens for recreational purposes remains of particular concern.

Rucker has several suggestions to help mediate the therapeutic action of the drug during medical trials, and thereby sets out to rebut the concerns of experts such as Volkow. When a person is administered a hallucinogen, they experience a changed mental state. During that changed state, Rucker points out, it is possible to control what he describes as a “context,” and thereby make use of the drug more safe.

According to Rucker, the term “context” is divided into the “set” and the “setting” of the drug experience. “By ‘set,’ I mean the mindset of the individual and by ‘setting’ I mean the environment surrounding the individual,” he explained.

To prepare the mindset of the person, Rucker said that a high level of trust between patient and therapist is essential. “A good therapeutic relationship should be established beforehand, and the patient should be prepared for the nature of the psychedelic experience,” he suggested. The ‘setting’ of the drug experience should also be kept closely controlled — safe, comfortable and low in stress.

It is also necessary to screen participants who undergo the drug experience in order to minimize the risk of adverse effects. Rucker suggested screening patients with an established history of severe mental illness, as well as those at high risk of such problems developing. It is also important to screen the medical and drug history of participants.

“The action of psychedelics is changed by many antidepressant and antipsychotic drugs and some medications that are available over the counter, so a full medical assessment prior to their use is essential,” he said.

In order to avoid the danger of addiction, psychedelics should be given at most on a weekly basis. Indeed, for many patients, very few treatments should be required. “The patient may need only one or two sessions to experience lasting benefits, so the course should always be tailored to the individual,” Rucker advised.

If there are any adverse effects during the psychedelic experience, a pharmacological antagonist or antidote to the drug can be administered to immediately terminate the experience. “This underlines the importance of medical supervision being available at all times,” Rucker noted.

Psychedelics are heavily influenced by the environment surrounding the drug experience. Rucker is proposing they be administered under a controlled setting and with a trusted therapist’s supervision. Together with a reclassification of the drug, medical research could generate a better understanding and application of the benefits of psychedelics to mental health.

1.Rucker JJH. Psychedelic drugs should be legally reclassified so that researchers can investigate their therapeutic potential. BMJ. 2015; 350:h2902.