Use of psychedelic drugs to treat serious illnesses a rapidly developing area of research internationally
Queen’s University is embarking on building a research collaborative to study the efficacy and use of psychedelic drugs on people dealing with serious illnesses, such as post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) and severe depression.
The research collaborative, led by David Clements, Executive Director of Psychedelic Research at the university’s Faculty of Health Sciences, is still in its initial stages of gathering research and studies from all over the world.
The team will serve as an “interdisciplinary space for research, innovation and knowledge translation in the field of psychedelics”, according to a press release from Queen’s University.
“We are in the foundational stages of what we think is exciting. What’s unique is the kind of unit we’re setting up, and how we’re trying to approach what Queen’s contributions will be in a rapidly developing field,” Clements said.
According to Dr. Jane Philpott, “the study of psychedelics is an important and emerging area of research and policy in Canada”.
“As we look to the critical need for further research, education, and knowledge translation, researchers in Canada’s post-secondary institutions have an important role to play, and the Faculty of Health Sciences at Queen’s University has positioned itself at the forefront,” she said in a statement.
Clements explained that Canada is part of a “global movement” right now, with scientists around the world interested in using psychedelic drugs to see if they can be of benefit to people with serious health problems.
Due to the type of legal and regulatory environment in Canada, researchers can get approval to use psychedelic drugs for research.
“You can’t do that everywhere, but you can do that in Canada. We have an opportunity to be on the cutting edge of science,” Clements said.
What are psychedelic drugs?
Psychedelic drugs, according to Clements, is a broad category. Also known as hallucinogens, psychedelics can encompass everything from mescaline or peyote, psilocybin or magic mushrooms, ecstasy or MDMA, to lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD).
Psychedelics bind to serotonin receptors ( which regulate a person’s mood, among other things) in the brain.
LSD was discovered in the 1940s and was originally used for clinical purposes. However, LSD became an illegal substance after widespread recreational use, pushing the use of the substance underground today. Cannabis, it may be noted, is not considered a psychedelic drug.
Studies about psychedelic drugs and its effects, in many cases, have been underground. As these studies have not been done in an approved, clinical way, Clements said that one of the research team’s goal is to document past studies.
“First, (we) summarize and synthesize what’s already known, even if it’s anecdotal (or) it’s not published literature,” he said.
The next step is for the team to figure out how to work with partners to build safety and efficacy as a component of psychedelic therapy. Clements mentioned that University of Toronto is doing a small-scale trial on micro-dosing and LSD, for example.
Other developments all over the world have been very rapid. For instance, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States granted “breakthrough status” for a couple of drugs, including MDMA or ecstasy.
“What that has meant is that we have had research occurring in an area that is very difficult to do research in, since these drugs are illegal,” Clements said.
“(The United States) look to be on track for approval of MDMA for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder in 2022,” he revealed.
Who can benefit from psychedelic drugs?
Integrating psychedelic drugs in psychotherapy is generating a lot of excitement and hope, according to Clements.
“Canada is part of a global movement of these drugs having a new level of legitimacy and a higher level of expectations about what their usefulness can be—particularly for populations that we don’t have treatments for right now,” he explained.
There is some evidence of the effectiveness of using psychedelics for PTSD and treatment-resistant severe depression.
“These are the patients who haven’t had a lot of treatment options,” Clements said, noting that, in many cases, people with severe PTSD don’t fare well with talk therapy as it takes them back to a very traumatic time.
PTSD is very difficult to treat, said Clements, and some studies have found the use of psychedelic drugs enhanced the effectiveness of guided psychotherapy.
“It’s about being integrated in a treatment approach that is customized and tailored to work for those populations… it’s not just about giving someone a drug,” he expressed.
Another emerging area is the use of psychedelic drugs for people with a drug dependency or alcoholism. There is also increasing use of psychedelics (particularly psilocybin mushrooms) for those who are terminally ill to help them cope with difficulties at the end of life.
“People are speculating that there may be some usefulness [for those who suffer from] eating disorders, [as well as] amputees with missing limb syndrome,” said Clements.
He stressed that research is “early” in those areas, and that getting studies done is of utmost importance to look at the safety and efficacy of psychedelic drugs.
“We really are looking at the capacity of building teams at Queen’s University that can successfully compete for funding opportunities and capitalize on the expertise we have on campus,” he said.
With the excitement and hope that these drugs will potentially help a lot of people, Clements warned of the risk of being too overly hopeful.
“We all can think of many cases where [certain] drugs are touted as major breakthroughs for everybody. We want to make sure we have gathered enough scientific evidence,” he said.
Many times, the successful treatment is based off of one person’s experience, and while that may be true, Clements said it’s important to establish legitimacy and to conduct clinical trials.
“Part of the challenge due to the legal status of these drugs, [is that] you have a lot of well-meaning people that have done the work underground,” he said.
“But it hasn’t been done in a well-structured clinical trial that will then provide the kind of evidence that the government can say ‘this is something that can be approved for use’ or ‘we’ll pay for that kind of therapy.’”
Building blocks of a research collaborative
We’re not talking about a study at this stage. We are building a research collaborative.”
— David Clements, Executive Director of Psychedelic Research at Queen’s University
“We have people on campus that have done work in this area—from a neuroscience perspective, or a social scientist interested in various aspects of public policy, etc.,” Clements said.
Looking to support from the Queen’s University community who are interested in psychedelic research, finding partnerships with other universities, gathering evidence from the public to understand how these drugs are used, and working with clinicians, among other things, are tasks the research team aims to undertake.
The launch of the research collaborative is made possible by the Dimensions Health Fund in support of the study of psychedelics.
“As a company that is deeply committed to improving general well-being, we are excited by the potential for transformational healing that psychedelics have been shown to provide,” said Chris Dawson, CEO of Dimensions Health Centres.
“We are confident that the research and development at Queen’s will shape the psychedelics industry for years to come.”