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Psychedelic Drugs Might Help Psychiatric Patients

August 18, 2010

Swiss scientists suggested Wednesday that psychedelic drugs like LSD, ketamine and magic mushrooms could be combined with psychotherapy to treat people suffering from depression, compulsive disorders or chronic pain.

Research into the effects of psychedelics has been restricted because of the negative connotations of drugs, but the scientists said more studies into their clinical potential were now justified.

The scientists reported that recent brain imaging studies show that psychedelics like lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), ketamine and psilocybin act on the brain in ways that could help reduce symptoms of various psychiatric disorders.

The scientists said that the drugs could be used as a kind of catalyst that helps patients alter their perception of problems or pain levels and then work with behavioral therapists or psychotherapists to take on them in new ways.

“Psychedelics can give patients a new perspective — particularly when things like suppressed memories come up — and then they can work with that experience,” Franz Vollenweider of the Neuropsychopharmacology and brain imaging unit at Zurich’s University Hospital of Psychiatry, told Reuters.

Experts say that depending on the type of person taking the drug, the dose and the situation, psychedelics can have a wide range of effects, from feelings of boundlessness and bliss to feelings of loss of control and panic.

Vollenweider and his colleague Michael Kometer said evidence from previous studies suggests these types of drugs might help ease mental problems by acting on the brain circuits and neurotransmitter systems that are altered in people suffering depression and anxiety.

However, they said that if doctors were to use them to treat psychiatric patients in the future, then it would be important to keep doses of the drugs low, and ensure they were given over a relatively short time period in combination with therapy sessions.

“The idea is that it would be very limited, maybe several sessions over a few months, not a long-term thing like other types of medication,” Vollenweider said in a phone interview with Reuters.

U.S. scientists published a small study this month that found an infusion of ketamine can lift the mood within minutes in patients with severe bipolar depression.

Mental illnesses like depression are a growing health problem around the world and Vollenweider and Kometer said many patients with severe or chronic psychiatric problems fail to respond to medicines like serotonin reuptake inhibitors like Prozac or Paxil.

“These are serious, debilitating, life-shortening illnesses, and as the currently available treatments have high failure rates, psychedelics might offer alternative treatment strategies that could improve the well-being of patients and the associated economic burden on patients and society,” they wrote in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

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