Psilocybin research arrives at U of Minnesota

By John Horchner

Current lab studies at the University of Minnesota in neuropsychiatric disorders, including psychedelic treatments, hold the promise of yielding breakthrough results on using the drug psilocybin.

To better appreciate the current state of research into the medical use of psychedelic drugs, it’s useful, I think, to go back nearly 100 years to the genesis of one unique method for fighting alcoholism.

In 1934, before Bill Wilson became one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, he admitted himself to Towns Hospital for Drug and Alcohol Addiction in Manhattan.

There, he was visited by his good friend and drinking buddy Ebby Thacther. Thacther had quit drinking. At Wilson’s request, Thacther told him about the Oxford Group’s methods to which he attributed his recovery from alcoholism.

According to Wikipedia, the Oxford Group was a “religious group based on the principles of the first century church … founded by the American Lutheran minister Frank Buchman in 1921. Buchman believed that fear and selfishness were the root of all problems. Further, Buchman believed that the solution to living with fear and selfishness was to ‘surrender one’s life over to God’s plan’.

After Thacther left, Wilson asked God for help. Wilson cried out, “I’ll do anything! Anything at all! If there be a God, let him show himself!”

“Suddenly,” Wilson recalled, “my room blazed with an indescribably white light. I was seized with an ecstasy beyond description.”

Following discharge from the hospital, Wilson never drank again.

However, his mental suffering did not end with his alcoholism.

In the 1950s, Wilson wrote a piece on the need for addicts to achieve “emotional sobriety” — in essence to rewire their brains in all aspects of life. He never lost his desire for a mystical experience like he had at Towns Hospital and tried psychedelic drugs in medically supervised experiments.

But there was a backlash against these drugs in the 1960s and Wilson and others stopped their research into the potential healing power of psychedelics.

However, the research restarted in the late 1990s at one of the world’s great medical academic institutions, John Hopkins University, with the help of a 1972 University of Minnesota Ph.D. graduate, Roland Griffiths — who was founding director of the Johns Hopkins Center on Psychedelic and Consciousness Research.

Griffiths was a meditator and a reluctant convert to the study of psychedelics. His earlier research was on the effects of caffeine on the brain. But his meditation made him deeply curious about altered states of consciousness.

In 2000, Griffiths’ researchers received regulatory approval to determine if psilocybin — the principal psychoactive component in the psilocybin family of mushrooms — can elicit a transcendental experience. Griffiths and his team knocked it out of the park.

Later studies produced results nothing short of astounding in some of the hardest cases of eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorders, alcoholism and drug treatment resistant depression.

Cancer patients Griffiths studied showed a 70% remit to normal range and had sustained anti-depressant effects after a single exposure to substance dose.

The thought on how it works is that we all have a default mode network (DMN) that makes up a system to relay messages in regards to one’s self. Those with depression and anxiety, as well as other disorders, may have heightened activity in this network causing increased rumination among other things.

Psychedelics are thought to dampen at least two of these regions of the brain and enhance one of them for a period of time — long enough for the patient to learn new things or process old things.

Recently, Griffiths, who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, said in an interview on YouTube that you may not need psilocybin to achieve these results. For most, meditation and even deep breathing can quiet the default mode network.

The University of Minnesota also conducts research in similar areas through its Nielson Lab, run by Jessica Nielson, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and the Institute for Health Informatics. The lab studies neuropsychiatric disorders, including using psychedelic treatments in its research.

I reached Nielson by email, and she said this research is still in the early stages. It is also not without risks.

Therefore, psilocybin is “only available in the context of a clinical trial, which is more of a science experiment than medical treatment,” Nielson said. Currently, her lab is enrolling participants in a Psilocybin Surround Suppression Study.

Asked if it was clear how psilocybin might aid mental health professionals in the future, Nielson said, “How many doses are needed, or how long the effects will last, is not known at this time. Or whether the type of integrative psychotherapy, and the intensity of it and how that might prolong therapeutic benefits, is also unknown.”

But scientists like Nielson are searching for the answers that could yield one of the biggest developments in psychiatry in years. 

John Horchner lives in St. Anthony Park and is a professional writer.

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