A former Purdue professor is making major headway in a revolutionary method of treatment for psychiatric disorders by facilitating controlled psychedelic trips.
Adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and former Purdue distinguished professor, David Nichols, has been conducting research on psychedelics since 1974, when he came to Purdue as an assistant professor. Nichols said he was interested in why, of all the life-changing events people experience, a drug can be one of them.
“The thing that was interesting to me was how these things produce such profound effects on the brain,” Nichols said. “You fall in love or you get married, have a child, maybe a parent or sibling dies – these kinds of things. Or you could take some LSD and your life may be permanently changed after that.”
Psychedelics have been around for thousands of years, used for spiritual reawakening in early tribes and later used for recreation in the 1960s. The name “psychedelic” was coined by a psychiatrist, Humphry Osmond, in a letter to British author, Aldous Huxley. Osmond wrote: “To fathom Hell or soar angelic, / Just take a pinch of psychedelic.”
The class of drugs was later described and defined by Jerome Jaffe, the chief of the Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention, as a drug with the “capacity reliably to induce or compel states of altered perception, thought and feeling that are not (or cannot be) experienced otherwise, except in dreams or at times of religious exaltation.”
Nichols’ curiosity in psychedelics began with understanding the way the drugs interact with the brain, which led to the groundbreaking discovery of certain chemical receptors in the brain. Nichols learned exactly how the active chemicals in psychedelic drugs such as LSD, mescaline, MDMA or psilocybin, bound to receptors in the brain in a way that gave people the sensation of pleasure and the altered perception associated with psychedelics.
Having studied the mechanism of these drugs and how to synthesize them, Nichols took action in learning how to use psychedelics in a medicinal context. Along with like-minded scientists, he formed the Heffter Research Institute in 1993, a non-profit institute that collaborates with physicians and clinicians to find ways to treat psychological disorders with psychedelics.
Nichols was not surprised to find multiple legitimate and effective uses of psychedelics, including the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism, depression and anxiety.
Two of the most recent studies at Johns Hopkins and New York University involved people suffering from anxiety and depression as a result of a cancer diagnosis. Researchers used psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, to induce a psychedelic experience in a controlled environment. The results of the studies show a marked decrease in anxiety and depression for as long as two years, Nichols said.
These treatments haven’t gained mainstream support as a result of skepticism from the early experimentation with the drugs. In the 1960s, Timothy Leary, an American psychologist, promoted the concept of recreational use of psychedelics with the catch-phrase “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”
Nichols said Leary’s concept and heavy-handed approach to publicizing the non-medicinal use of psychedelics hurt the view of psychedelics in the public’s eyes, including the government, though scientists were never entirely swayed from the legitimacy of the drugs.
“The stigma (of working with psychedelics) never really bothered me and it never really hit the scientific community that much,” Nichols said. “The stigma is with the public and with government officials mostly. In this field, so much has happened in the last 10 years that a scientist or a clinician who has been working in this field can go give a seminar and can talk about this to ordinary people and there isn’t this stigma.”
Despite the progress made in the last 10 years, a handful of critics remain. Thomas Szasz, a psychiatrist who had been a professor emeritus at the State University of New York Upstate Medical University, criticized the use of psychedelics to treat psychiatric conditions.
Szasz wrote in his 2007 book, “Coercion as a Cure: A Critical History of Psychiatry,” the era of psychedelic drugs is characterized by “exhibitionism, frivolity, sensationalism, mysticism, ersatz religion and pseudoscience.”
Regardless of the criticism, patients that have used these treatments have been speaking out about the life-changing effects. Lauri Kershman, a leukemia patient who suffered from anxiety and depression following her diagnosis, spoke at the Psychedelics Science Conference in 2013 regarding her psilocybin treatment.
“The safety that I felt, to be able to let go and face some demons and go deep into some pretty deep and difficult and sad places, grieving the loss of my career, of my motherhood, really my whole identity,” Kershman said. “It was amazing how (the psilocybin treatment) allowed me to open up to self-empathy and mount the walls of post-traumatic stress and then turn around and make enormous changes in my life.”