Researching Psychedelics for Psychiatric Disorders

June 01, 2020

Frederick S. Barrett, PhD, is affiliated with the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins University.

Dr Barrett spoke with Nick Andrews at TEDMED about the research that has been conducted by his center on the impact of psychedelics, or hallucinogens, on psychiatric disorders. He has no disclosures.

Take-home points:

  • Barrett transitioned into neuroscience research through his interest in the effect of music on human emotions and the brain.

  • Up until 1970, psychedelics were widely used in clinical research, with over 1000 academic papers published about their use. For example, psychedelics were used as a model for schizophrenia and helped identify the role of serotonin in psychosis. They were also studied to treat addiction and as a treatment for existential anxiety in cancer. In 1971, psychedelics were declared illegal under the United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances.

  • Dr Roland Griffiths and a group at Johns Hopkins have led the way in re-establishing clinic research using psychedelics.

  • In the next 10 years, Barrett would like to have a clear understanding of the effect size of psychedelics on mood and substance use disorders.

  • Psychedelic agents have a novel therapeutic quality: Studies support that a few or even one exposure to a psychedelic compound, which has a short-term biological effect, leads to a long-lasting therapeutic effect such as remission of mood disorder or change in personality characteristics. The clinical outcomes are mediated by the intensity of the psychedelic experience.

Summary:

  • The Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research is working to discern which medical indications have the most promise of being treated with psychedelics. Their goal is a balanced and rational approach to psychedelic research, and subsequent treatment considering the societal and political contexts around these drugs.

  • Barrett trained in music education and psychology, and has been a musician all his life. He moved into neuroscience during graduate school and used music as a tool to study emotions and the brain.

  • Music, meditation, and psychedelics have a similar flow component that inspires converging research questions, as well as a desire to analyze the brain and understand this experience that is central to consciousness.

  • Music is fundamental to the human experience, and it's exciting to describe the neural circuitry of how music affects the brain and emotions.

  • Music is useful in therapy because it can regulate emotions. There has long been an overlap of the use of psychedelics and music in therapy. A prime example of this is Guided Imagery and Music (GIM), a specialized form of therapy that arose from work done by Helen Bonny, who developed a protocol for using music to regulate emotions during psychedelic experiences.

  • It will be interesting to see whether (and how) psychedelics are efficacious in treating an array of substance use disorders. If effective, they would be a single-use treatment for addiction to substances that interact with diverse neural circuits.

References

  1. Barrett FS, Griffiths RR, Classic hallucinogens and mystical experiences: phenomenology and neural correlates. Curr Top Behav Neurosci. 2017 Mar 26. doi: 10.1007/7854_2017_474

  2. Barrett FS, Preller KH, Kaelen M. Psychedelics and music: neuroscience and therapeutic implications. Int Rev Psychiatry. 2018;30:350‐362. doi: 10.1080/09540261.2018.1484342

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