Researchers Are Experimenting With Magic Mushrooms' Fascinating Ability to Improve Mental Health Disorders
Mental illness is a dark undercurrent in the lives of tens of millions of Americans. According to the World Health Organization, about 450 million people worldwide have a mental health disorder, which cut across all demographics, cultures, and socioeconomic classes.
One area of research seems to herald the first major breakthrough in decades — hallucinogen-assisted psychotherapy.
The U.S. National Institute on Mental Health estimates that severely debilitating mental health disorders cost the U.S. more than $300 billion per year, and that's not even counting the human toll of broken lives, devastated families, and a health care system stretched to the limit.
However, one area of research seems to herald the first major breakthrough in decades — hallucinogen-assisted psychotherapy. Drugs like psilocybin (obtained from "magic mushrooms"), LSD, and MDMA (known as the club drug, ecstasy) are being tested in combination with talk therapy for a variety of mental illnesses. These drugs, administered by a psychotherapist in a safe and controlled environment, are showing extraordinary results that other conventional treatments would take years to accomplish.
But the therapy will likely continue to face an uphill legal battle before it achieves FDA approval. It is up against not only current drug laws (all psychedelics remain illegal on the federal level) and strict FDA regulations, but a powerful status quo that has institutionalized fear of any drug used for recreational purposes.
How We Got Here
According to researchers Sean Belouin and Jack Henningfield, the use of psychedelic drugs has a long and winding history. It's believed that hallucinogenic substances have been used in healing ceremonies and religious rituals for thousands of years. Indigenous people in the U.S., Mexico, and Central and South America still use distillations from the peyote cactus and other hallucinogens in their religious ceremonies. And psilocybin mushrooms, also capable of causing hallucinations, grow throughout the world and are thought to have been used for millennia.
But psychedelic drugs didn't receive much research until 1943, when LSD's psychoactive effects were discovered by chemist Albert Hoffman. Hoffman tested the compound he had discovered years earlier on himself and found that the drug had profound mind-altering effects. He made the drug available to psychiatrists who were interested in testing it out as an adjunct to talk therapy. There were no truly effective drugs at the time for mental illnesses, and psychiatrists early on saw the possibility of psychedelics providing a kind of emotional catharsis that might represent therapeutic breakthroughs for many mental conditions.
During the 1950s and early 1960s, psychedelic drugs saw an increase in use within psychology, according to a 2018 article in Neuropharmacology. During this time, research on LSD and other hallucinogens was the subject of over 1,000 scientific papers, six international conferences, and several dozen books. LSD was widely prescribed to psychiatric patients, and by 1958, Hoffman had identified psilocybin as the hallucinogenic in "magic mushrooms," which was also administered. By 1965 some type of hallucinogenic had been given to more than 40,000 patients.
Then came a sea change. Psychedelic drugs caught the public's attention and there was widespread experimentation. The association with Hippie counterculture alarmed many and led to a legal and cultural backlash that stigmatized psychedelics for decades to come. In the mid-1960s, psychedelics were designated Schedule 1 drugs in the U.S., meaning they were seen as having "no accepted medical use and a high potential of abuse." Schedule 1 also implied that the drugs were more dangerous than cocaine, methamphetamine, Vicodin, and oxycodone, a perception that was far from proven but became an institutionalized part of drug enforcement. Medical use ceased and research dwindled down to close to zero.
For years, research into hallucinogenic-assisted therapy was basically dormant, until the 1990s when interest started to revive. In the 2000s, the first modern clinical trials of psilocybin were done by Francisco Moreno at the University of Arizona and Matthew Johnson at Johns Hopkins. Scientists in the 2010s, including Robin Carhart-Harris, started studying the use of psychedelics in the treatment of major depressive disorder (MDD).
In small trials with these patients, results showed significant and long-term improvement (for at least six months) after only two episodes of psilocybin-assisted therapy. In several studies, the guided experience of administering one of the psychedelic drugs along with psychotherapy seemed to result in marked improvement in a variety of disorders, including depression, anxiety, PTSD, and addiction.
The drugs allowed patients to experience a radical reframing of reality, helping them to become "unstuck" from the anxious and negative tape loops that played in their heads. According to Michael Pollan, an American author and professor of journalism who wrote the book, "How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence," psychedelics allow patients to see their lives through a kind of wide angle, where boundaries vanish and they're able to experience "consciousness without self." This perspective is usually accompanied by profound feelings of oneness with the universe.
Pollan likens the effect to a fresh blanketing of snow over the deep ruts of unproductive thinking, which characterize depression and other mental disorders. Once the new snow has fallen, the ruts disappear and a new path can be chosen. Relief from symptoms comes immediately, and in numerous studies, is sustained for months.
In spite of growing evidence for the safety and efficacy of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, the practice has major hurdles to cross on its quest for FDA approval.
Some of the most influential studies have focused on testing the use of psilocybin to treat end-of-life anxiety in patients diagnosed with a terminal illness. In 2016, Stephen Ross and colleagues tested a single dose of psilocybin on 29 subjects with end-of-life anxiety due to a terminal cancer diagnosis. A control group received a niacin pill. The researchers reported that of the 29 receiving psilocybin, all of the patients had "immediate, substantial, and sustained clinical benefits," even after six months.
In spite of growing evidence for the safety and efficacy of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, the practice has major hurdles to cross on its quest for FDA approval. The National Institutes of Health is not currently supporting any clinical trials and the research relies on private sources of funding, often with small research organizations that cannot afford the high cost of clinical trials.
Given the controversial nature of the drugs, researchers in psychedelic-assisted therapies may be cautious about publicity. Leapsmag reached out to several leaders in the field but none agreed to an interview.
Still, interest is building in the combination of psychedelic drugs and psychotherapy for treatment-resistant mental illnesses. Two months ago, Johns Hopkins University launched a new psychedelic research center with an infusion of $17 million from private investors. The center will focus on psychedelic-assisted therapies for opioid addiction, Alzheimer's disease, PTSD and major depression, to name just a few. Currently, of 51 cancer patients enrolled in a Hopkins study, more than half reported a decrease in depression and anxiety after receiving therapy with psilocybin. Two thirds even claimed that the experience was one of the most meaningful of their lives.
It is not unheard of for Schedule 1 drugs to make their way into medical use if they're shown to provide a bonafide improvement in a medical condition through well-designed clinical trials. MDMA, for example, has been designated a Breakthrough Therapy by the FDA as part of an Investigational New Drug Application. The FDA has agreed to a special protocol assessment that could speed up phase three clinical trials. The next step is for the data to be submitted to the FDA for an in-depth regulatory review. If the FDA agrees, MDMA-assisted therapy could be legalized.
Will the positive buzz around psychedelics persuade the NIH to provide the millions of dollars needed to push the field forward?
Robin Carhart-Harris believes the first drug that will receive FDA clearance is psilocybin, which he speculates could become legal in the next five to ten years. However, the field of psychedelic-assisted therapy needs more and larger clinical trials, preferably with the support of the NIH.
As Rucker and colleagues noted, the scientific literature bends toward the theme that the drugs are not necessarily therapeutic in and of themselves. It's the use of hallucinogens within a "psychologically supportive context" with a trained expert that's helpful. It's currently unknown how many users of recreational drugs are self-medicating for depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses. But without the guidance of a knowledgeable psychotherapist, those who are self-medicating may not be helping themselves at all.
Will the positive buzz around psychedelics persuade the NIH to provide the millions of dollars needed to push the field forward? Given the changing climate in public opinion around these drugs and the need for breakthroughs in mental health therapies, it's possible that in the foreseeable future, this bold new therapy will become part of the mental health arsenal.
Astronauts at the International Space Station today depend on pre-packaged, freeze-dried food, plus some fresh produce thanks to regular resupply missions. This supply chain, however, will not be available on trips further out, such as the moon or Mars. So what are astronauts on long missions going to eat?
Going by the options available now, says Christel Paille, an engineer at the European Space Agency, a lunar expedition is likely to have only dehydrated foods. “So no more fresh product, and a limited amount of already hydrated product in cans.”
For the Mars mission, the situation is a bit more complex, she says. Prepackaged food could still constitute most of their food, “but combined with [on site] production of certain food products…to get them fresh.” A Mars mission isn’t right around the corner, but scientists are currently working on solutions for how to feed those astronauts. A number of boundary-pushing efforts are now underway.
The logistics of growing plants in space, of course, are very different from Earth. There is no gravity, sunlight, or atmosphere. High levels of ionizing radiation stunt plant growth. Plus, plants take up a lot of space, something that is, ironically, at a premium up there. These and special nutritional requirements of spacefarers have given scientists some specific and challenging problems.
To study fresh food production systems, NASA runs the Vegetable Production System (Veggie) on the ISS. Deployed in 2014, Veggie has been growing salad-type plants on “plant pillows” filled with growth media, including a special clay and controlled-release fertilizer, and a passive wicking watering system. They have had some success growing leafy greens and even flowers.
"Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources."
A larger farming facility run by NASA on the ISS is the Advanced Plant Habitat to study how plants grow in space. This fully-automated, closed-loop system has an environmentally controlled growth chamber and is equipped with sensors that relay real-time information about temperature, oxygen content, and moisture levels back to the ground team at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In December 2020, the ISS crew feasted on radishes grown in the APH.
“But salad doesn’t give you any calories,” says Erik Seedhouse, a researcher at the Applied Aviation Sciences Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. “It gives you some minerals, but it doesn’t give you a lot of carbohydrates.” Seedhouse also noted in his 2020 book Life Support Systems for Humans in Space: “Integrating the growing of plants into a life support system is a fiendishly difficult enterprise.” As a case point, he referred to the ESA’s Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative (MELiSSA) program that has been running since 1989 to integrate growing of plants in a closed life support system such as a spacecraft.
Paille, one of the scientists running MELiSSA, says that the system aims to recycle the metabolic waste produced by crew members back into the metabolic resources required by them: “The aim is…to come [up with] a closed, sustainable system which does not [need] any logistics resupply.” MELiSSA uses microorganisms to process human excretions in order to harvest carbon dioxide and nitrate to grow plants. “Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources,” Paille adds.
Microorganisms play a big role as “fuel” in food production in extreme places, including in space. Last year, researchers discovered Methylobacterium strains on the ISS, including some never-seen-before species. Kasthuri Venkateswaran of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of the researchers involved in the study, says, “[The] isolation of novel microbes that help to promote the plant growth under stressful conditions is very essential… Certain bacteria can decompose complex matter into a simple nutrient [that] the plants can absorb.” These microbes, which have already adapted to space conditions—such as the absence of gravity and increased radiation—boost various plant growth processes and help withstand the harsh physical environment.
MELiSSA, says Paille, has demonstrated that it is possible to grow plants in space. “This is important information because…we didn’t know whether the space environment was affecting the biological cycle of the plant…[and of] cyanobacteria.” With the scientific and engineering aspects of a closed, self-sustaining life support system becoming clearer, she says, the next stage is to find out if it works in space. They plan to run tests recycling human urine into useful components, including those that promote plant growth.
The MELiSSA pilot plant uses rats currently, and needs to be translated for human subjects for further studies. “Demonstrating the process and well-being of a rat in terms of providing water, sufficient oxygen, and recycling sufficient carbon dioxide, in a non-stressful manner, is one thing,” Paille says, “but then, having a human in the loop [means] you also need to integrate user interfaces from the operational point of view.”
Growing food in space comes with an additional caveat that underscores its high stakes. Barbara Demmig-Adams from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder explains, “There are conditions that actually will hurt your health more than just living here on earth. And so the need for nutritious food and micronutrients is even greater for an astronaut than for [you and] me.”
Demmig-Adams, who has worked on increasing the nutritional quality of plants for long-duration spaceflight missions, also adds that there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Her work has focused on duckweed, a rather unappealingly named aquatic plant. “It is 100 percent edible, grows very fast, it’s very small, and like some other floating aquatic plants, also produces a lot of protein,” she says. “And here on Earth, studies have shown that the amount of protein you get from the same area of these floating aquatic plants is 20 times higher compared to soybeans.”
Aquatic plants also tend to grow well in microgravity: “Plants that float on water, they don’t respond to gravity, they just hug the water film… They don’t need to know what’s up and what’s down.” On top of that, she adds, “They also produce higher concentrations of really important micronutrients, antioxidants that humans need, especially under space radiation.” In fact, duckweed, when subjected to high amounts of radiation, makes nutrients called carotenoids that are crucial for fighting radiation damage. “We’ve looked at dozens and dozens of plants, and the duckweed makes more of this radiation fighter…than anything I’ve seen before.”
Despite all the scientific advances and promising leads, no one really knows what the conditions so far out in space will be and what new challenges they will bring. As Paille says, “There are known unknowns and unknown unknowns.”
One definite “known” for astronauts is that growing their food is the ideal scenario for space travel in the long term since “[taking] all your food along with you, for best part of two years, that’s a lot of space and a lot of weight,” as Seedhouse says. That said, once they land on Mars, they’d have to think about what to eat all over again. “Then you probably want to start building a greenhouse and growing food there [as well],” he adds.
And that is a whole different challenge altogether.
We are sticking our heads into the sand of reality on Omicron, and the results may be catastrophic.
Omicron is over 4 times more infectious than Delta. The Pfizer two-shot vaccine offers only 33% protection from infection. A Pfizer booster vaccine does raises protection to about 75%, but wanes to around 30-40 percent 10 weeks after the booster.
That’s because the much faster disease transmission and vaccine escape undercut the less severe overall nature of Omicron. That’s why hospitals have a large probability of being overwhelmed, as the Center for Disease Control warned, in this major Omicron wave.
Yet despite this very serious threat, we see the lack of real action. The federal government tightened international travel guidelines and is promoting boosters. Certainly, it’s crucial to get as many people to get their booster – and initial vaccine doses – as soon as possible. But the government is not taking the steps that would be the real game-changers.
Pfizer’s anti-viral drug Paxlovid decreases the risk of hospitalization and death from COVID by 89%. Due to this effectiveness, the FDA approved Pfizer ending the trial early, because it would be unethical to withhold the drug from people in the control group. Yet the FDA chose not to hasten the approval process along with the emergence of Omicron in late November, only getting around to emergency authorization in late December once Omicron took over. That delay meant the lack of Paxlovid for the height of the Omicron wave, since it takes many weeks to ramp up production, resulting in an unknown number of unnecessary deaths.
We humans are prone to falling for dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases.
Widely available at-home testing would enable people to test themselves quickly, so that those with mild symptoms can quarantine instead of infecting others. Yet the federal government did not make tests available to patients when Omicron emerged in late November. That’s despite the obviousness of the coming wave based on the precedent of South Africa, UK, and Denmark and despite the fact that the government made vaccines freely available. Its best effort was to mandate that insurance cover reimbursements for these kits, which is way too much of a barrier for most people. By the time Omicron took over, the federal government recognized its mistake and ordered 500 million tests to be made available in January. However, that’s far too late. And the FDA also played a harmful role here, with its excessive focus on accuracy going back to mid-2020, blocking the widespread availability of cheap at-home tests. By contrast, Europe has a much better supply of tests, due to its approval of quick and slightly less accurate tests.
Neither do we see meaningful leadership at the level of employers. Some are bringing out the tired old “delay the office reopening” play. For example, Google, Uber, and Ford, along with many others, have delayed the return to the office for several months. Those that already returned are calling for stricter pandemic measures, such as more masks and social distancing, but not changing their work arrangements or adding sufficient ventilation to address the spread of COVID.
Despite plenty of warnings from risk management and cognitive bias experts, leaders are repeating the same mistakes we fell into with Delta. And so are regular people. For example, surveys show that Omicron has had very little impact on the willingness of unvaccinated Americans to get a first vaccine dose, or of vaccinated Americans to get a booster. That’s despite Omicron having taken over from Delta in late December.
What explains this puzzling behavior on both the individual and society level? We humans are prone to falling for dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases. Rooted in wishful thinking and gut reactions, these mental blindspots lead to poor strategic and financial decisions when evaluating choices.
These cognitive biases stem from the more primitive, emotional, and intuitive part of our brains that ensured survival in our ancestral environment. This quick, automatic reaction of our emotions represents the autopilot system of thinking, one of the two systems of thinking in our brains. It makes good decisions most of the time but also regularly makes certain systematic thinking errors, since it’s optimized to help us survive. In modern society, our survival is much less at risk, and our gut is more likely to compel us to focus on the wrong information to make decisions.
One of the biggest challenges relevant to Omicron is the cognitive bias known as the ostrich effect. Named after the myth that ostriches stick their heads into the sand when they fear danger, the ostrich effect refers to people denying negative reality. Delta illustrated the high likelihood of additional dangerous variants, yet we failed to pay attention to and prepare for such a threat.
We want the future to be normal. We’re tired of the pandemic and just want to get back to pre-pandemic times. Thus, we greatly underestimate the probability and impact of major disruptors, like new COVID variants. That cognitive bias is called the normalcy bias.
When we learn one way of functioning in any area, we tend to stick to that way of functioning. You might have heard of this as the hammer-nail syndrome: when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. That syndrome is called functional fixedness. This cognitive bias causes those used to their old ways of action to reject any alternatives, including to prepare for a new variant.
Our minds naturally prioritize the present. We want what we want now, and downplay the long-term consequences of our current desires. That fallacious mental pattern is called hyperbolic discounting, where we excessively discount the benefits of orienting toward the future and focus on the present. A clear example is focusing on the short-term perceived gains of trying to return to normal over managing the risks of future variants.
The way forward into the future is to defeat cognitive biases and avoid denying reality by rethinking our approach to the future.
The FDA requires a serious overhaul. It’s designed for a non-pandemic environment, where the goal is to have a highly conservative, slow-going, and risk-averse approach so that the public feels confident trusting whatever it approved. That’s simply unacceptable in a fast-moving pandemic, and we are bound to face future pandemics in the future.
The federal government needs to have cognitive bias experts weigh in on federal policy. Putting all of its eggs in one basket – vaccinations – is not a wise move when we face the risks of a vaccine-escaping variant. Its focus should also be on expediting and prioritizing anti-virals, scaling up cheap rapid testing, and subsidizing high-filtration masks.
For employers, instead of dictating a top-down approach to how employees collaborate, companies need to adopt a decentralized team-led approach. Each individual team leader of a rank-and-file employee team should determine what works best for their team. After all, team leaders tend to know much more of what their teams need, after all. Moreover, they can respond to local emergencies like COVID surges.
At the same time, team leaders need to be trained to integrate best practices for hybrid and remote team leadership. Companies transitioned to telework abruptly as part of the March 2020 lockdowns. They fell into the cognitive bias of functional fixedness and transposed their pre-existing, in-office methods of collaboration on remote work. Zoom happy hours are a clear example: The large majority of employees dislike them, and research shows they are disconnecting, rather than connecting.
Yet supervisors continue to use them, despite the existence of much better methods of facilitating colalboration, which have been shown to work, such as virtual water cooler discussions, virtual coworking, and virtual mentoring. Leaders also need to facilitate innovation in hybrid and remote teams through techniques such as virtual asynchronous brainstorming. Finally, team leaders need to adjust performance evaluation to adapt to the needs of hybrid and remote teams.
On an individual level, people built up certain expectations during the first two years of the pandemic, and they don't apply with Omicron. For example, most people still think that a cloth mask is a fine source of protection. In reality, you really need an N-95 mask, since Omicron is so much more infectious. Another example is that many people don’t realize that symptom onset is much quicker with Omicron, and they aren’t prepared for the consequences.
Remember that we have a huge number of people who are asymptomatic, often without knowing it, due to the much higher mildness of Omicron. About 8% of people admitted to hospitals for other reasons in San Francisco test positive for COVID without symptoms, which we can assume translates for other cities. That means many may think they're fine and they're actually infectious. The result is a much higher chance of someone getting many other people sick.
During this time of record-breaking cases, you need to be mindful about your internalized assumptions and adjust your risk calculus accordingly. So if you can delay higher-risk activities, January and February might be the time to do it. Prepare for waves of disruptions to continue over time, at least through the end of February.
Of course, you might also choose to not worry about getting infected. If you are vaccinated and boosted, and do not have any additional health risks, you are very unlikely to have a serious illness due to Omicron. You can just take the small risk of a serious illness – which can happen – and go about your daily life. If doing so, watch out for those you care about who do have health concerns, since if you infect them, they might not have a mild case even with Omicron.
In short, instead of trying to turn back the clock to the lost world of January 2020, consider how we might create a competitive advantage in our new future. COVID will never go away: we need to learn to live with it. That means reacting appropriately and thoughtfully to new variants and being intentional about our trade-offs.