To the federal government, psychedelic drugs like LSD, MDMA (also known as Ecstasy or Molly in its street forms), and psilocybin (the psychoactive ingredient in mushrooms) are dangerous Schedule I substances with a high potential for abuse and no medical value.
But leading psychedelic researchers paint a much different picture ― one of fascinating compounds with the power to rewire the human brain and possibly revolutionize treatment for a number of debilitating mental health issues.
We’ve yet to find a conclusive answer that can prove either side right or wrong, though initial indications suggest it’s fair to be skeptical of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s view. Early clinical studies have produced promising results, convincing many that psychedelics are at least worthy of further research. But thanks to a grueling approval process and the widespread stigma attached to these drugs, the path to officially recognizing their potential medical benefits has been difficult.
A crowdfunding initiative launched Tuesday gives the public a chance to help accelerate this process by donating directly to psychedelic science.
The Fundamental campaign has partnered with experts in the field of psychedelic research in hopes of raising $2 million over the next four months. Donated money will be split between four areas. Two studies involve psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy, with one focused on the treatment of end-of-life anxiety and the other on alcoholism. A third study is examining the use of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. The fourth is looking at the effects of LSD-microdosing therapies, which have been touted as a way to enhance mood, cognition, productivity and creativity.
New York real estate developer Rodrigo Niño is heading up Fundamental, drawing from his personal experience in the fields of both crowdfunding and psychedelic therapy.
In May 2011, Niño realized he had an unusual skin growth. He saw a doctor, and days later received a devastating diagnosis: At 41, Niño had stage 3 melanoma. His odds of survival were 1 in 3 over the next five years.
Niño underwent a pair of procedures in the following months to remove cancerous growths, but he remained haunted by anxiety that the disease would kill him. In the summer of 2011, Niño traveled to the Peruvian Amazon, where he partook in a number of ayahuasca ceremonies over the next few weeks. He returned home completely changed.
“I got completely over my fear of dying,” Niño told HuffPost.
Although the ayahuasca felt like a miracle cure for his anxiety, Niño wasn’t sure if his newfound sense of calm was a placebo effect, or if the psychedelic jungle vine had actually altered his brain chemistry.
Back in New York, Niño met with Stephen Ross, director of addiction psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center, who explained to him that psilocybin ― a psychoactive ingredient different from the one found in ayahuasca ― had begun to show promising results as a treatment for end-of-life anxiety. Over the next few years, Niño’s interest in the therapeutic applications of psychedelic drugs grew, as did the body of scientific research.
This past December, Ross and researchers at Johns Hopkins University published the results of two separate clinical trials on the effects of psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy on patients with cancer-related anxiety and depression. All told, between 60 and 80 percent of the subjects showed clinically significant reductions in both psychological disorders after treatment. Patients reported that the benefits of a single dose of psilocybin along with therapy lasted up to seven months, with minimal side effects.
Now, Fundamental is hoping to provide Ross with the money to explore this preliminary research in the kind of large-scale trials necessary to better understand the therapeutic value of psilocybin.
“The problem with funding for psychedelic research is it’s incredibly hard to do,” Ross explains in a video for Fundamental. “The federal government will give approval through the [Food and Drug Administration] and the DEA, but the [National Institutes of Health] agencies don’t appear yet ready to fund psychedelic research.”
Fundamental is also raising money for research on the effects of psilocybin-assisted treatment on alcoholism, which Michael Bogenschutz at NYU Langone is heading up. Initial studies have shown promise, building on a rich history of anecdotal evidence that psychedelic drugs could help people battle addiction.
“If we had more funding, we could accelerate the rate of the research, we could accelerate potential discoveries and breakthroughs, and we could accelerate the rate at which these medicines may become available to alleviate human suffering,” Ross says in the video.
Part of the challenge in financing psychedelic research is that there’s no profit motive for large pharmaceutical companies, Niño says. These studies don’t focus on treating symptoms. Rather, they’re trying to address the root cause of mental illness by essentially disrupting the default mode network, or ego, of a person’s brain. In other words, they’re trying to eliminate the need for treatment, not offer an ongoing one.
“The problem is that these natural compounds sometimes require only two sessions to do what a lifetime of treatment wouldn’t do with traditional antidepressants,” Niño told HuffPost. “They don’t really make money, because they’re also in the public domain and they can’t be patented.”
But Niño hopes that Fundamental can help create a movement around the issue of psychedelic research and therapy.
“We’re trying to inspire people to realize that despite the fact this doesn’t make money, it’s something that must happen for the sake of everybody,” he said.
Fundamental has also partnered with Rick Doblin, executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, which is beginning phase three clinical trials on MDMA as a treatment for PTSD. Phase three is the final step before a medication can officially be approved by the FDA as a prescription drug ― a goal MAPS is hoping to reach by 2021.
Early studies on MDMA and PTSD have produced impressive results, with one trial showing nearly 70 percent effectiveness in reducing symptoms after a handful of sessions of MDMA-assisted therapy.
For Fundamental’s fourth initiative, the campaign has joined forces with psychedelic pioneer Amanda Feilding to look into the science of microdosing with LSD ― a pursuit that’s become popular in recent years, especially in the fast-paced world of Silicon Valley.
Feilding is the founder and director of the Beckley Foundation, a think tank that advocates for psychedelic research. Her latest project seeks to gain a better understanding of how small amounts of LSD can affect human performance and brain function. Feilding’s study involves doing brain imaging on a small number of subjects while they engage in a variety of cognitive tasks. Participants will also play the ancient Chinese board game Go against a computer. Feilding hopes this will allow her to examine how LSD changes brain connectivity and contributes to enhanced creativity or problem-solving skills.
If all of this research seems a bit, well, out there, that’s not unreasonable. Niño says it’s fair to be skeptical and it’s critical to proceed with caution, which is exactly why rigorous scientific studies like these are needed.
“We think that psychedelics don’t create addiction based on the evidence, but we need to confirm it,” he said. “We think that it will help with depression and end-of-life anxiety and so on and so forth, but we need to scientifically confirm it as well.”
And though Niño suggested these studies could help break the stigma surrounding psychedelics, perhaps even putting them on the road to legalization, he said that was far beyond the scope of the Fundamental campaign.
“This is not an invitation to do illicit drugs of any sort,” Niño said. “This is an invitation to collectively back up the researchers who are finding out whether this has potential or not, as the evidence is showing it does on a preliminary basis.”
Fundamental is collecting money through the website CrowdRise. Donations will be deposited into an account controlled by a third-party group, Charity Aid Foundations of America. When the campaign closes on Sept. 9, the money will be distributed as grants among the different research programs.