The past few years have seen the emergence of a relatively new and controversial mode of treatment in the psychiatric sector: psychedelic-assisted therapies. As more scientists across the country have turned their attention to psychedelics and its possible benefits, a growing body of research has revealed that hallucinogenics such as ketamine, psilocybin and MDMA have the potential to treat various mental health disorders.
Since the research comes when the country is in the midst of a mental health crisis and plenty of Americans are interested in safer and more effective mental health treatments, psychedelic-assisted therapies have seen a significant surge in mainstream interest. One key aspect of this treatment is that patients have to go through a psychedelic “trip,” or experience, before they can extract benefits from the psychedelic of choice. This experience allows them to discover revelations that enable them to reframe their mindsets and deal with their mental illness more effectively. Depending on the psychedelic used, this guided hallucinogenic trip can last up to eight hours.
However, not everyone believes that the hallucinogenic experience is necessary for patients to benefit from psychedelic-assisted therapy. Although we don’t fully understand how psychedelics deliver mental-health benefits, some experts believe that they promote neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s inherent ability to adapt and change its connections based on internal and external stimuli.
Chemist and director of the University of California’s Institute for Psychedelics and Neurotherapeutics David Olson notes that psychedelics encourage the growth and connection of new neurons in the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that sees cell death in patients with neuropsychiatric diseases. The big question is, does the hallucinogenic experience affect the benefits derived from psychedelic-assisted therapy? Would it be possible to strip away the psychedelic trip without reducing the effectiveness of the psychedelic-assisted treatment?
Psychedelic therapy can cost thousands of dollars, mostly due to the length of guided therapy sessions, which may require more than one trained therapist. University of North California pharmacologist Bryan Roth says that psychedelics also have the risk of causing “bad” trips, which can cause long-term damage for patients with a history of psychosis.
Eliminating the trip altogether in favor of some kind of psychedelic-based drug with neuroplastic capabilities would reduce the length of treatment and potentially reduce its cost. Furthermore, it would be safer for patients with a psychosis history who may react negatively to bad psychedelic trips. Proponents of developing psychedelic drugs without the mind-bending effects say these types of substances would allow more people to access much-needed mental health treatments.
It remains to be seen how startups such as atai Life Sciences N.V. (NASDAQ: ATAI) will develop products that appeal to the mass market while also limiting the possible adverse effects of hallucinogens on sections of the target market, such as those prone to psychosis.
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