Psychedelics eyed for mood disorders

Greg Miller writes that the study of psychedelics has recovered after "Timothy Leary really screwed things up for science", and is emerging from dormancy.

“The antics of Timothy Leary really undermined the scientific approach to studying these compounds,” psychopharmacologist Roland Griffiths of Johns Hopkins University told the audience. But the times they are a-changin’. In recent years, a small cadre of scientists has cautiously rekindled the scientific study of psychedelics. At the conference, they reported new findings on how these drugs scramble brain activity in ways that might help explain their mind-bending effects. They’re also slowly building a case that these drugs might help people with depression, anxiety and other disorders.

Translation: drug companies need new products, badly.

Photo: Shutterstock


  1. The antics of Timothy Leary really undermined the scientific approach to studying these compounds

    It’s the antics of an ignorant, bullshit federal drug war that’s undermined things, not Timothy Leary.

  2. “Translation: drug companies need new products, badly.”
    No. The research presented at the Psychedelic Science 2013 conference was not sponsored by any pharmaceutical company. Why would Pharma have any interest in the value of a tool like MDMA, psilocybin, or LSD, when none of them are patentable? 

    1. Wouldn’t analogues be patentable though? Analogues might also provide a way to sidestep some of the stigma associated with these substances.

      1. Disclaimer: IANAL IANYL ATINLA;

        The way drug patents work is that you don’t patent the formulation; formulations generally aren’t patentable. You patent the combination of the formulation plus the use to which the formulation is applied, i.e. aspirin used to treat HIV would be patentable (not that anyone would, not that it does).

        If it requires $_ridiculous_specific_equipment_and_resources to manufacture, and is not widely available over-the-counter, and might treat a disease, it’s a target for pharmacy patenting. It isn’t about treating a disease, it’s about a captured market and a government-enforced monopoly.

  3. Translation: mental disorders are complex and varied and what works for one person may not work for another — and it may not work for that one person forever.

  4. Is Monsanto going to try to patent the Sacred Mushrooms?
    If not you can bet Pfizer et al will try to sink any research.

    1.  If only there was some way to combine the study of mind altering chemicals with botany or mycology…

      1.  Nope, we get lyme and rocky mountain spotted fever outbreaks occasionally, but other than that it’s pretty benign around here.  We hardly even have poisonous snakes or spiders… I’d never heard of valley fever before you mentioned it (and incidentally, ew).

  5. The antics of Prometheus really undermined the elite-gatekeeper-y approach to studying the phenomenon,” sky-god Zeus of Mount Olympus told the audience. But the times they are a-changin’. In recent years, a small cadre of deities has cautiously rekindled the scientific study of fire. At the conference, they reported new findings on how this substance scrambles brain activity in ways that might help explain its mind-bending effects. They’re also slowly building a case that fire might help people with depression, anxiety and other disorders, and that it may have practical applications as well, such as cooking food or heating a dwelling.


  6. The drugs currently used to treat mood disorders are horrible. Absolutely horrible. Common side effects include completely losing your libido, massive weight gains, and nausea. These are the kind of things that make treating a mood disorder harder. And the actual efficacy of these drugs isn’t great. I don’t know why the general public thinks that the drugs used to treat mental illnesses are effective, because they often aren’t. There is a crucial need for new drugs to developed.

    1. Citations, please? Those are some very broad generalizations about both efficacy and the public’s perceptions.  We should always be moving forward with treatments, but a wholesale rejection of what we have now doesn’t help people who are suffering now.  I am only one piece of data, but from personal experience, death would probably suck more than the side effects.

      1.  Inefficacy:
        Public’s perceptions: Old one, but in ’96 it looks like just under half of the people in this survey thought antidepressants were effective, a quarter didn’t know, and about a third didn’t think they are:

        Given the ridiculous amount of marketing for antidepressants in the last 10 years I’d guess those numbers have swung more to the “effective” side.

      2.  I’m perfectly comfortable saying that psych meds have been extremely helpful for me, for friends/family, and for clients of mine, and also that they often, on the whole, kind of suck (viz. side effects, waiting for them to kick in, trying to find the right one, tapering off as appropriate, stigma, iatrogenic effects, etc. etc.)  I find they’re often rather like that old saw of Churchill’s about democracy being the worst form of government except for all the others that have ever been tried.

    2. I don’t know whether the drugs are effective on average. It’s rather hard to tell. I only know that the side effects are often reported, and some anecdotal versions of those effects. 

      My niece had a variety of troubles in her adolescence — most of which were related to her high school environment — but she spent a few years in and out of several institutions which gave her a series of diagnoses that were often conflicting and, in my opinion, superficial. But the cocktail of drugs they put her on was absolutely debilitating, in the form of constant nausea, headaches, and possibly related to her elevated spinal fluid pressure they discovered. She finally recovered completely after she was taken off all treatments, finished high school, got herself into college and started living independently with her college peers.

      More recently, a friend of mine who’s been on antidepressants on and off for a number of years mentioned a new drug that she’d been put on — something I’d never heard of. So I asked her, “What does that do?” and she said, “Make you gain 45 lbs. instantly.” Lovely.

      I’ve often wondered whether I suffer from some form of depression, but one reason I’ve never sought treatment is that this shit really puts me off. Oh, I believe that the science of it is science, but history shows us that some realms of study can be quite a mess when they’re not yet mature. Those are the breaks of the scientific method. And it sure seems like neurological medicine is one of those. 

        1. Ted Sturgeon said the same thing, only he added, “…only effects we prefer not to discuss just now.”

          1. I’ve always thought of side-effects as a euphemism for, “There are the effects that we intended, and those that we did not.”

      1. I’ve often wondered whether I suffer from some form of depression, but one reason I’ve never sought treatment is that this shit really puts me off.

        You might as well try for a diagnostic interview. If you are worried about drugs, you won’t have to take them if you don’t want to. There are actually many drug-free practices around if you search for them (they will recommend drugs if they think they will help, but won’t require them to continue treatment).

        1. Thanks! I’ve also wondered what would happen if my insurance provider referred me to a therapist and they prescribed medication. Would my insurance be able to screw with me if I refused to take it? I should hope there’d be a non-binding option, so that’s encouraging.

          1. If you do have a disorder, it is useful to know. It is sort of like knowing you have diabetes. Knowing doesn’t cure anything, but it does warn you of the dangers.

          2. You can also accept the prescription, but never actually take it. Like half the patient population.

          3. @Antinous_Moderator:disqus Good point, though I do have to note that if you fill a prescription and wish to discard the medication, don’t do it by flushing them in a toilet as it can contaminate water supplies.

  7. To rebut Mr. Miller:

    Timothy Leary didn’t screw up the science of psychedelics or entheogens. The politics of 1950’s – 1970’s America screwed up the politics surrounding the science of psychedelics and entheogens; specifically, the stranglehold that “culturally conservative” White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Middle-Class Americans had on the machines of American politics, and their tooth-and-nail fight to use the machine to “conserve” (read: enforce the practice of) their “cultural values”, i.e. No Coloreds No Mexicans No Furrners No Commies No Ay-Rabs No Hindoos No Japs No Chinee No Nothin’ That Might Make Our Kids Miscegenate No Catholics No Irish No Jews No Mohammedans No Atheists No Questioning Christianity or the Machine.

    Timothy Leary et alia likely made it possible for psychedelics and entheogens to be actually something studiable — as opposed to buried under a state secrets act — by defying an unjust, unfair, immoral political climate that sought (and still seeks!) to strangle science when it didn’t serve the machine’s needs.

    You wanna forward science, then let’s fight the real anti-intellectual anti-science anti-human enemy. Don’t assign blame to a man who celebrated intellect, science, and humans.

    1. Thank-you!  As great as the renewed interest in research has been, one of the most misguided things to come out of it is the Tim Leary scapegoating.  Convenient, for sure, but it absolves the true players who profit and benefit (in terms of control and structure) from the decades long “drug war” from any responsibility and completely disregards the heart of the issue.  Alan Watts was already well aware of it in this excellent essay (from way back in 1968):

      “The content of the mystical experience is thus inconsistent with both the religious and secular concepts of traditional Western thought. Moreover, mystical experiences often result in attitudes that threaten the authority not only of established churches, but also of secular society. Unafraid of death and deficient in worldly ambition, those who have undergone mystical experiences are impervious to threats and promises. Moreover, their sense of the relativity of good and evil arouses the suspicion that they lack both conscience and respect for law. Use of psychedelics in the United States by a literate bourgeoisie means that an important segment of the population is indifferent to society’s traditional rewards and sanctions.”

      Psychedelics and Religious Experience

      Unless we truly understand these underlying issues, we have no real hope of changing it and prevailing attitudes.

    2. Thanks for posting this.
      Writing a glib but catchy title snags eyeballs but it shouldn’t detract from what Ol’ Tim has done to fan the fires in many a heart of psychonauts everywhere. 

  8. Sadly, those that could do the work are dying off, the FDA and DEA are tightenting the screws on those who can legally do Schedule I drug research, and to top it all off-nearly all of the most useful substances discovered to date are all off-patent. So tell me, who’s going to want to spend the money to do all the necessary FDA trials for off-patent drugs? 

  9. I met Tim a couple of times back in the day, but never got beyond surface politenesses. But a professor of mine, Jonah Raskin, described to us his trip to Algeria to visit Eldridge Cleaver. Tim picked him up at the airport, and when they got back to Eldridge’s compound, he just headed for the door and said, “Leave your bag, Jonah–my boy will get it.” And his “boy” was a black man in his sixties. Eldridge, who had just come out to greet Raskin, grimaced and said, “You see what I have to deal with?” That has stuck with me a long time.

    1. And that, unlike the shit the guy in the article was spouting, is actually a legitimate criticism, and bothers me, too.

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