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Testing the Boundaries of Psychedelics

September 1, 2023

Psychedelic Healing

It’s been a long time coming, but a new generation of research for psychedelic healing is finally gaining some recognition in the medical community. 

For a bit of background, psychedelics are powerful psychoactive substances known for their abilities to alter perception and mood and affect numerous cognitive processes. 

Traditional or “classic” psychedelics are serotonergic agonists that include LSD, DMT, and psilocybin. Other substances with similar effects are often grouped together with classic psychedelics, including MDMA and ketamine. Because of this overlap in use and effect, these substances are commonly grouped together under the umbrella term “psychedelic.”

While psychedelic research is still very much in the early phases of trials and testing, recent clinical studies have confirmed the belief by many that psychedelics are well worth evaluating for their therapeutic potentials from a number of different perspectives.

This shift has not been an easy (or quick) one, as up until recently the notion that psychedelics can have beneficial effects has not been embraced in most medical or scientific circles.

The history of psychedelic research

The mind-altering substances referred to as hallucinogens have been around long enough that their origin predates written history, and they were introduced by early cultures and Indigenous peoples in many sociocultural and ritual contexts.

Psychedelics have been used and researched for centuries, however it wasn’t until the 1950s and 1960s that methodological challenges and the unsupervised and uncontrolled recreational use of psychedelic substances misconstrued the reason for why these substances were being researched. 

The advancement of psychedelic medicine was halted by the mid-1970s as clinical access was no longer granted and professional interest in psychedelic drugs was slowly sidelined.

After several decades of silence in the psychedelic medical community, pivotal interest sparked, and research gained traction again. Researchers began to shed light on the potential benefits that psychedelics could have on helping heal people from mental illnesses.

Testing the boundaries 

Psychedelic-induced states of consciousness are remarkable for a number of reasons that are still being discovered by researchers. 

The re-emergence of psychedelic medicine has shown promising advancements in treating the neurological illnesses of addiction, depression, anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Clinical trials have demonstrated strong evidence in the medical benefits for hallucinogenic substances, and these findings are profound enough to warrant further insights and investigations into the therapeutic value of psychedelic medicine.

With all of these steps forward, psychedelic research still has a long way to go… there are boundaries and limitations these hallucinogenic substances face today that include: 

  • Clinicians cannot yet prescribe psychedelics or serve as a guide during psychedelic experiences.
  • Incorporating psychedelics into traditional psychotherapy poses some risk given their prohibited status in most countries, and there are legal and ethical boundaries around conducting therapy around clients’ personal use of psychedelics.
  • Psychedelic research usually excludes those with personal or family history of psychosis or bipolar disorder, and there are potential risks of psychotic breaks while using psychedelics for those with these predispositions. 
  • Taking psychedelic drugs under clinical supervision can potentially involve acute increases in anxiety, fear, heart rate and blood pressure – without careful watch, fearful responses could lead to harmful behaviour.

While the stigma around the harmful effects of psychedelics (when they are not being misused or for recreational purposes) is slowly subsiding, psychedelic research still has to safely overcome many barriers before we can see this as a viable clinical option for therapy and treating mental illnesses. 

The next steps for the advancement of psychedelic medicine

Research in psychedelic medicine has demonstrated the potential to help aid a variety of mental illnesses. Recent clinical studies with psychedelics used in therapeutic settings have shown that they can comply with all of the scientific, ethical, and safety standards that are expected of medical research today. 

There are still a few boundaries that psychedelic research has yet to cross, as some methodological and political challenges remain present.  

As well, many scientific and empirical questions have yet to be answered in the field of psychedelic medicine. The human brain, and its functional relationship to the mind and consciousness is something that we are continually learning about, which will help aid further understandings and investigations into how psychedelics can help treat and heal humans. 

Megan Binder

B.A Psychology

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