A Psychedelic Conversation: Tackling the taboo

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After decades of being classified as of no medical use, psychedelic drugs like LSD, MDMA and psilocybin are beginning to gain ground in medical research. Preliminary results are indicating it may have the potential to treat various mental illnesses, such as depression, PTSD and even addiction. However, as scientists begin to tackle the workings of these incredible compounds, for some, the most important battle will be to overcome the stigma they have garnered from years of being a banned substance, leaving its impure, harmful and unregulated forms to dictate public perception.

16836358_1882842171962445_590122942983272149_oWith this goal in mind, CamBRAIN decided to tackle the taboo and so the idea for our biggest event this term was born. Three panellists were invited to draw on their individual areas of expertise:  Professor Paul Fletcher from the university’s psychiatry department; Amanda Fielding founder and director of a leading funding body for psychedelic research, the Beckley foundation; and Leor Roseman, a budding PhD student in the field from Imperial College London. Chaired by Professor Ed Bullmore, Head of the Department of Psychiatry, it was set up to provide an informed discussion on the value of these drugs to science and medicine and the challenges that lie ahead.

16865078_1882841405295855_6566258045980796809_nAfter the crowd of over 200 people settled into their seats in the main lecture theatre of the Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience, Ed started the evening’s proceedings by introducing the three panellists. Then, Professor Paul Fletcher took the stage as the first speaker for the evening. He drew from his work on ketamine to explain how mind-altering substances can be an incredibly useful tool for modelling psychiatric disorders, in this case psychosis. Early into his discussion, he used captivating visual and auditory aids to demonstrate two forms of hallucinations. Then, he explained that models are indispensable tools for research but asserts that models are just that- a model. He pointed out that you wouldn’t look through the windows of an aeroplane model and complain that you couldn’t see a pilot or a drinks trolley. Paul concludes his point by stating that a model should only be judged based on the purpose it serves, which in the case of early stage psychosis, ketamine does very well.

16903186_1882841918629137_6299829885263052437_oNext up, was Amanda Fielding. Amanda started the Beckley Foundation in 1998 and has since played a pivotal role in the revival of psychedelic research in the past decade. Long before that, however, she has spent decades trying to convince governments and the public to take seriously the medical and psychological benefits of psychedelic drugs. Through her foundation, her voice is finally being heard. The work done by the Beckley foundation was the main focus of her talk for the evening. She highlighted key findings from their recent collaborations, most notably with Professor David Nutt and Dr Robin Carhart Harris, who pioneered the world’s first imaging study of the brain on LSD. This served as a perfect introduction for the next speaker, who hails from that lab and was part of that monumental study.

16865230_1882841545295841_4373619824011880694_nLeor Roseman did his BSc in Neuroscience in Tel Aviv University. He then started his MRes at Imperial College London where he worked under the supervision of Prof. Nutt and Dr. Carhart-Harris. He is now a PhD candidate of the Beckley-Imperial Research Program. Leor talked about the recently completed pilot study investigating the therapeutic effectiveness of psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression. He then presented fMRI data recorded before and after psilocybin-assisted therapy showing enhanced amygdala activity in response to emotional faces after therapy. Moreover, Leor compared those results to the blunted amygdala response following traditional antidepressants. He suggested that psychedelic-assisted therapy could be a treatment avenue that preserves, and even enhances emotional receptiveness.

After the speakers’ sessions, the floor was opened to Q&A. This discussion was chaired by Professor Ed Bullmore. The session went on for over forty-five minutes. The audience challenged the speakers by raising the problem of placebo effects in psychedelic research. The speakers openly discussed this issue and went on to answer questions about the overlap in research between meditation and psychedelics. Lastly, the speakers explained the future hurdles facing psychedelic research. This psychedelic conversation tackled the taboo; it cleared the myths and answered some key questions surrounding psychedelics research. It reminded us CamBrainiacs that we must keep an open mind, discuss our ideas and have the courage to tackle taboos.

By: Muhammad Kaiser & Aicha Massrali

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