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Researchers in the US are trialling psilocybin as a therapy treatment for frontline healthcare workers

By Francesca Johnson

Dec 22, 2021

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We’ve previously seen how revolutionary applications of the drug psilocybin have been recommended to therapists as a new, additional form of treatment for a variety of mood disorders such as depression, and, in more recent years, anxiety. Be warned however, the recommendation didn’t last long, as using it as an additive to therapeutic treatment has recently been shut down for now by medical boards in Australia. That being said, all hope in the drug is not lost as the US has also taken an interest in the benefits of magic mushrooms with a new study that aims to see if it can alleviate the mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on healthcare workers.

A new study in psilocybin for COVID-19 mental health

Aside from the obvious worldwide turmoil, panic, and unfortunately high numbers of deaths, the global pandemic has also caused multiple unapparent setbacks in all of our lives. From changing the realm of dating forever to the extreme social isolation of lockdowns, we are still adapting to our new normal and mental health has obviously taken a huge hit because of it. This is especially the case of healthcare workers, as a national poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) and the Washington Post found that 30 per cent have received, or feel they need, mental health treatment due to the endless stress of the pandemic.

Keeping the door to the future of shroom therapy open, Big Think reported that in the US, the University of Washington (UW), funded by the Stephen & Alexandra Cohen Foundation in Seattle, is currently recruiting frontline healthcare workers into a study to test the effects of psychedelic-assisted therapy for mood disorders—previously tested by Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore on mood disorders in people with cancer diagnoses. The difference here is, this current study, whose current sole trial site is UW School of Medicine, specifically looks at the treatment of depression and anxiety in healthcare key workers.

The latest research will see 30 participants randomly split up into either a test group or placebo group and will then be administered either psilocybin or a placebo. The test will also include a series of multiple visits under the supervision of specially trained psychotherapists. Required two 90-minute counselling sessions will take place for all participants, to get them comfortable with the study’s therapists and to prepare them for the psychedelic experience (as we know it can be a bit of a trip). Third time’s the charm, as upon the third visit a dose of synthesised, pure psilocybin—equal to three grams of dried mushrooms—will be handed out to the test group participants, provided by the Usona Institute.

UW Medicine oncologist, palliative-care specialist, professor of medicine and lead investigator, Anthony Back told UW Newsroom “We hope to help [healthcare key workers] address their feelings of grief, inadequacy and moral distress as a result of caring for COVID patients.”

Psilocybin banned in Australia

As previously reported, the drug was trialed in an Australian study across the pond and was green-lit by the Monash University Human Research Ethics Committee (MUHREC). The study conducted by Incannex Healthcare Ltd looked at shrooms as an addition to traditional therapy for both patients and therapists in order to treat a specified anxiety disorder—generalised anxiety disorder (GAD).

However, VICE recently reported that medical regulators in Australia rejected the proposal for legalised clinical use citing its lack of research as its biggest hindrance. Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) rejected the application made last week, Wednesday 15 December, to downscale the severity of drugs like MDMA and psilocybin in the country’s Australia’s poison standard.

In a recently released statement, the TGA expressed that its decision was based on fear that the legalisation of such drugs could invoke abuse of them in non-clinical contexts. The overturned decision, which was also supported by organisations like The Australian Medical Association (AMA), means that the drug cannot be used in psychotherapy treatment for any mental illness. The drug can’t even be used for treatment in a medically-controlled environment under the authorisation of a psychiatrist or psychotherapist. This  dampened the aspirations of many researchers citing this as a big leap that could’ve become a new reality in possible treatment options.

The future of psilocybin in the US

However, such setbacks in Australia did not stop Back from looking at psilocybin’s potential back in the US for COVID-19-related mental health issues—particularly for the trauma shared among frontline health workers. “At the outset there was this agonizing uncertainty about how easily the virus was transmitted. Then many practitioners saw patients die right in front of them, with no family present, so the clinicians had to carry the emotional burden that family members normally would bear. And many of these patients die in great physical discomfort, gasping for breath. It’s been really hard, and in some instances traumatic,” Back explained.

Speaking about the Washington-based research to UWNewsroom, Back acknowledged the disappointment that the placebo group will probably experience, however, he did add that they will receive two hours-long sessions with two therapists. For many of them “it will be the first time that they have taken that much time to process the feelings that negatively affect their attitudes toward work and life,” he shared.

Psilocybin allows a unique type of psychological exploration for the research field, “It makes your brain more plastic and your beliefs and desires less rigid,” Back claimed. “It can allow people to break up habitual cycles of thoughts and beliefs,” he further divulged.

To enroll in the study, you must meet eligibility criteria and complete a scientifically-validated questionnaire to confirm any existing symptoms of depression or anxiety. This questionnaire will also be revisited after the sessions in the investigation to gauge any changes or progress made to truly test the drug’s effectiveness.

Pandemic brain is as real as it gets, especially for healthcare workers who have had to carry much of the weight we’ve all felt on our shoulders ever since COVID-19 first appeared. And if psilocybin can help you with that, why not try your luck?

Australian therapists could soon be given shrooms to better treat anxiety patients

By Francesca Johnson

Nov 9, 2021

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The world of medicine is constantly evolving—especially when it comes to taking care of our busy brains, with innovative ideas concocted to combat mental health problems that plague us every day. But what if I told you that giving therapists magic mushrooms could lead to better therapy?

Australian researchers have recently been given the world’s first ethical green light to study whether psychedelic treatments can be used to treat a primary anxiety disorder. That’s right, you heard it from me first folks, magic mushrooms—specifically psilocybin, the active chemical within them—is the increasingly coveted medical miracle that could possibly help treat anxiety patients.

Simply put, trippy treatments are still all the rage and the subject of fascination. Australia-based pharmaceutical company Incannex Healthcare Ltd recently getting the green light from the Monash University Human Research Ethics Committee (MUHREC) to launch its second-phase of clinical trials is only proof of that. Coupled with specialised therapy, the research’s aim here is to analyse if this double whammy can help reduce the effects of anxiety in generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)—a chronic type of anxiety capable of manifesting as worry or panic on a day-to-day basis.

Spearheading the trials set to take place in the university’s BrainPark facility—a state-of-the-art neuroscience research clinic, outfitted with a meditation room and consultation suites—is the Head of Clinical Psychedelic Research, Paul Liknaitzky, who is optimistic that the study could play a greater role in the fight against mental health concerns. Carried out in a total of two sessions, patients will be administered a high dose of psilocybin—starting with 25 milligrams, and upping the dosage in the second session. A minimum of three psychotherapy sessions with two qualified therapists will precede and follow each dosing session. The therapy focused element of this research is crucial, as it helps prepare participants for the often intense psychedelic experiences while aiding them throughout the dosing sessions, and later helping them process these experiences afterwards.

Due to the delicate and intense nature of preparing those suffering from anxiety with a treatment that could induce the same, this study is also a step towards conquering the uncharted territory of medicinal psychedelics. On the therapy side of things, therapists themselves will also be offered psilocybin to help them understand exactly what the patient is going through.

Speaking to VICE, Liknaitzky said, “We’re also providing psilocybin as an option to our therapists as part of their training. While this was commonplace for psychedelic therapists using LSD during the first wave of psychedelic research in the 50s and 60s, this is the first trial ever to offer psilocybin as a training tool for therapists, and the first to offer a classical psychedelic for this purpose since 1974.”

Pointing towards MDMA-assisted psychotherapy as a treatment for PTSD—where almost all patients asked their therapist whether they’d experienced the drug before—Liknaitzky highlighted to VICE how a therapist’s personal experience with psychedelic substances seems to play an important role in facilitating therapeutic benefits for patients.

Phase-two of the study is focused on this specialised therapy. “This is a real step forward for the field. Our trial, which is the biggest trial in Australia with 72 participants, is the first primary anxiety trial with psilocybin ever,” Liknaitzky told VICE, adding how the team is seeking participants with general anxiety disorder for the study sometime next year.

Though the treatment duration only spans seven weeks in total, Liknaitzky noted that “participants’ involvement in the trial is about six months, with assessments before, during and after the treatment phase.”

The dosing room at Monash’s BrainPark facility

Researchers have been officially analysing magic mushrooms and their psychological treatment’s benefits for over ten years now. The “psychedelic renaissance” of shrooms in the field of medicine was resumed after researchers identified that an active ingredient within them could help the terminally ill in the last stages of their lives.

A study performed by Doctor Charles Grob—a psychiatrist and professor of Psychiatry & Biobehavioral Sciences and Pediatrics and director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry—at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in California, revealed that giving a small dose of psilocybin to cancer patients at the end-stage of their life helped ease their anxiety. Native to the grassy fields, psilocybin is a naturally occurring psychedelic prodrug compound found within fungi which is quickly converted by the human body into psilocin—which has mind-altering effects that fall in line with recreational psychedelic drugs like LSD, mescaline, and DMT—which has the effect of euphoria, visual and mental hallucinations, perception changes and much more.

In the timeline of psychedelic mushroom research, two more studies were carried out five years after Grob’s initial attempt of breaking down the magical substance. Hallucinogens drove doctors into a frenzy over the potential benefits of such treatments, with clinical trials alighting at a range of universities. In 2015,  The New Yorker noted that the studies mentioned above were conducted at New York University (NYU) and John Hopkins University, while VICE acknowledged the power of psychedelics in palliative care three years later.

In 2016, a paper was published on the substantially decreased depression and anxiety within patients who were given the drug in a double blind study, yielding similar results. After a dose of the drug was administered, in the company of psychotherapists, subjects showed a significant and lasting reduction in anxiety, depression and existential distress. These findings in turn opened the gateway to uncovering the possibilities in otherwise-illicit drugs and proved instrumental in spotlighting psilocybin as one of the movement’s more promising candidates.

Microdosing may be in at the moment, but you might want to hold off on the tea talk over shrooms, as the drug is yet to be properly investigated. In fact, until now, there has never been a clinical trial to date studying the efficacy of psilocybin in treating a primary anxiety disorder.

The booming interest in psychedelics has been going on for quite some time in Australia too, with the legalisation of  magic mushrooms and an investment nudge of $15 million from the Australian federal government in grants—to support Australian-led research into the use of mushrooms, ecstasy and ketamine to tackle illnesses such as PTSD, major depressive disorders, addiction and eating disorders.

Though it is illegal in the country to cultivate, possess, use or supply psychedelic mushrooms, the aim of this new study is to analyse them for their psychoactive properties—in the hopes of looping them into tailored medical psychedelic treatments to address a variety of disorders. Dug up from cow manure and leaf litter on rainswept forest floors, the first legal collection of the mushrooms was awarded to University of Queensland’s Doctor Alistair McTaggart—a mycologist and evolutionary biologist with over a decade of study in the realm of fungal genetics—who will also be able to catalogue psilocybin. Very little is known about the 20 to 30 species of psychedelic mushrooms present in Australia. Doctor McTaggart’s research will aim to investigate whether they are native, edible, poisonous or adaptable for medicinal use.

It’s safe to say that, across the pond, Aussies have been making real strides in this area of research. Although the research is still in it’s initial testing phase before it can make its way to the general public, Doctor Liknatsky remains incredibly hopeful.

“The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies looks very likely to get approval in the US, and probably at a similar time in Australia, in late 2023 or early 2024,” he told VICE, continuing, “Which is pretty soon; it’s a lot sooner than a lot of people might imagine, given the field spent the better part of four decades in a deep freeze. And psilocybin-assisted therapy is likely to be two or three years behind that.”

Doctor Liknatsky has stated before, in an interview with The Age, that psychoactive therapy’s currently unsuccessful methods might have more positive treatment effects under this psychedelic-assisted model. “A lot of people are inclined to think about it as a drug treatment, as a chemotherapeutic treatment, whereas it’s really a combination of drug and talk therapy within a conducive setting.”

 

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