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Is it possible that, because of the war on drugs, we have demonized a treatment for otherwise untreatable diseases? A way to increase personal well-being, permanently treat depression, break the cycle of addiction, and ease the transition from life into death? The solution to all of these problems (for many people) might be a nice, hallucinogenic trip, but taking that trip can be harder than you might think.

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Is it possible that because of the war on drugs we have demonized treatment for otherwise untreatable diseases? A way to increase personal well-being, permanently treat depression, break the cycle of addiction, ease the transition of life into death. The solution to all of these problems, for many people at least, might be a nice hallucinogenic trip.


When you think about it, many of the most common mental illnesses come down to a malfunction in the fundamental thing that makes us who we are: our consciousness. Anxiety, depression, addiction, and lots of other afflictions are basically distortions of our sense of self awareness. Like whether we're actually in danger, in the case of anxiety, or whether we really need those substances that we're craving, as with addiction. I'll leave it to philosophers to decide where consciousness comes from, but medical science has gone a long way in determining how the brain reflects consciousness and how it can be treated when it's sick. And some neurologists are finding that one of the most effective treatments for diseases of consciousness is unfortunately illegal.Scientists know it as psilocybin, the active ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms, and it's pretty similar to other compounds and other psychedelic drugs like LSD and mescaline. Recent research suggests that it works just like they said in the 1960s: by expanding consciousness. Much of what we associate with consciousness, like emotions, the need to take care of ourselves, and basic self awareness, has been traced to the part of the brain called the cingulate cortex, tucked away near the brain's innermost core. Specifically, studies have found that this part of the brain, especially its anterior, or front region, is overactive in people with disorders like chronic depression and anxiety. In these cases, the cingulate cortex basically goes into overdrive, creating a state of hyper-consciousness with huge uncontrollable spikes in otherwise ordinary emotions and desires that make us the self-aware beings that we are. So finding a way to loosen up the cingulate cortex could be the key to curing all sorts of mental ailments.


In 2012, a study at Imperial College, London found that a small dose of psilocybin decreased the blood flow to this area of the brain and caused it to communicate less intensely with other parts of the brain. In so many words, it managed to quiet the seat of consciousness. But psilocybin has also been found to help people facing perhaps the most difficult mental challenge any of us will face: the transition from life to death. In 2008, researchers at UCLA conducted an experiment on 12 terminal cancer patients who were suffering from severe anxiety and depression. Each subject was given either a placebo or a small controlled dose of psilocybin. After the treatment, all of those who had taken the hallucinogen had registered much lower levels of anxiety, describing an increased sense of peace and acceptance of their situation, and all but one of the subjects showed decreased signs of depression. And it's not just that psilocybin altered the chemistry of anxious, depressed brains. In many cases, it appeared to change the patients themselves. The subjects in these studies not surprisingly experienced hallucinogenic episodes lasting anywhere from 20 minutes to several hours and during these trips, many described being able to feel and think about the difficulties they faced more clearly than they could before, thinking about what they'd miss after they died, how their loved ones would cope with their death, and so on. It was all incredibly intense, of course, but without the cingulate cortex working overtime, those thoughts were no longer filled with the dread and panic that had accompanied them before. And those big thoughts often remained manageable long the trips had ended.


So these treatments seem to allow patients to actually experience and think about things differently, rather than just medicating their symptoms. And this might help explain why the positive effects of all these studies have been found to last for weeks, even months, in ways that a simple mind numbing drug could never do. So clearly, psilocybin sounds promising, but there are also downsides to consider. While psilocybin is milder than the ingredient found in, say LSD, all hallucinogens can cause panic and disorientation and the doses in these experiments were only given in highly controlled environments with mental health workers on hand to help if anything went wrong, but what makes serious research on psilocybin even harder is that it's illegal just about everywhere, including the mushrooms from which it's extracted and even their spores. In some cases, like the studies I mentioned, scientists were able to get special, very limited licenses that have tons of restrictions on them, but in most cases research has been brought to a standstill by regulations. Now of course, keeping mind-altering substances off the street is one thing, you'll get no argument from me on that, but it's another thing to hamper research into what could be a breakthrough for mental health everywhere. Maybe the regulators just need to expand their minds a bit.


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