Since their discovery, MDMA, LSD and psilocybin (which makes certain mushrooms so magical) have collected tons of cultural baggage. Decades of recreational use obscure their pharmacological origin stories and potential medical applications. But today, many researchers are optimistic that the compounds could treat mental health issues ranging from depression to autistic spectrum disorder without the side effects or addictive nature of today’s prescription drugs.
While drug prohibition made research into psychedelics impossible for most of the 20th century, restrictions were lifted in the 1990s. Promising results already surfaced, including a pair of studies published in late 2016 showing that psilocybin use eased depression and anxiety for terminal cancer patients.
As the medical director of the Heffter Institute, George Greer explores medical possibilities for psilocybin and other psychedelics. He believes the future of psychedelic research holds vast potential. And while he cautioned extreme care with regards to dispensing it to the developing mind of a child, he predicted possible pediatric applications for psychedelics within the 21st century.
Solving The Mystery of Mushrooms
While there’s been increased research into psychedelics in recent years, researchers don’t know exactly how psilocybin works in the brain. The compound interacts with receptors for serotonin, a brain chemical that regulates mood and affects functions including sleep, appetite, memory and sexual desire. But, according to Greer, the details of that relationship are unknown. In fact, psilocybin may adjust or change the way serotonin receptors work in a lasting way. “How that leads to symptom reduction is a major question,” Greer says. “We don’t know for sure. But with most psychiatric drugs, the mechanism of action is not well known at all.”
The Psychedelic Shutdown
Thanks to brain regions that create what’s called the default mode network, your thought-organ is always busy. Repetitive thoughts cycle constantly in the background of our minds. It’s part of our identity, for good and bad — it can reinforce patterns of behavior our conscious mind knows are unhealthy. Psychedelics temporarily shut down that network, and the pause allows for a different perspective on your own behavior. “Those thoughts are silent, so new perspectives can come into the mind,” Greer said.
Tripping Away Addiction
Paradoxical though it may sound, psychedelic compounds may be a boon for parents of teens struggling with addiction. Before it was criminalized, researchers and addiction experts including Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson, believed psychedelics had great potential to combat addiction. “With addictions, they would ask why am I doing this? Why am I doing this self-destructive thing?” Greer says. “It’s an emotionally painful realization.”
LSD Versus ADHD
Researchers haven’t explored whether psychedelics could help treat attention deficit disorders, but, per Greer, anecdotal evidence suggests it could. Because even though psychedelics travel a different neurochemical circuit than that associated with ADHD they still seem to calm some symptoms. “ADHD is linked to dopamine and norepinephrine receptors, which psilocybin has no effect on,” Greer says. “There are reports from people on their own that micro-dosing LSD, meaning a dose so small they don’t feel the effects of LSD directly, helps with attention and focus.”
The Autism And Psychedelic Connection
In the 1950s, LSD was given to autistic children and it showed benefits in their behavior. “Right now another study is in process of using MDMA for adults with autistic spectrum disorder,” Greer says. The research follows anecdotal reports of MDMA helping people on the autism spectrum relate more socially. MDMA appears to activate parts of the brain that help people read expressions and ease anxieties related to social communications.
Will Kids Be Tripping Anytime Soon?
Your pediatrician isn’t going to prescribe your kid LSD anytime soon. Greer says that while there are promising indicators, research is still in very early stages. Ethical rules governing testing drugs on children — and common sense — keep researchers with psychedelics away from kids. “Children’s brains are developing and you don’t want to risk disturbing that development in an unhealthy way,” says Greer. “So there has to be a very clear and good reason to believe it will help the children and not cause problems before doing the research.”