The mind-altering properties of hallucinogenic and party drugs have been known for centuries.
But psychiatrists now believe the same trip-inducing effects of the substances might revolutionise mental health treatment.
In the name of science, patients with anxiety, depression and addiction issues have over the past decade been given ecstasy, ketamine and DMT to see if they ease their suffering.
The latest set of results — unveiled yesterday in one of the world’s most prestigious medical journals — suggest that magic mushrooms could one day be added to the arsenal of doctors.
A synthetic version of psilocybin, the ingredient responsible for the vision-distorting properties of shrooms, helped ease depression in patients who failed to respond to traditional treatments.
Researchers are now progressing to phase three trials, testing psilocybin’s safety and efficacy on a bigger group.
They hope it could be green-lit by regulators within years.
MailOnline looked at how the drugs are being used in the fight against depression, anxiety and PTSD.
A synthetic version of the hallucinogenic chemical in magic mushrooms could be rolled out on the NHS to treat depression, scientists say
WHAT IS PSILOCYBIN?
Psilocybin is a chemical found in several species of psilocybe mushrooms, known as ‘magic mushrooms’ or ‘shrooms’.
Researchers, led by Oxford University’s Dr Guy Goodwin, created a synthetic version of psilocybin.
They say it works by stimulating a receptor in the brain — called 5-HT2A — in an unusual way.
This triggers a clinical state that is ‘best described as a waking dream’ that users can remember afterwards.
It also releases a surge of dopamine — which is involved in mood regulation.
Glutamate, a neurotransmitter, is also released. This puts the brain in a more flexible state, ‘opening a therapeutic window of opportunity’, the team say.
This can lead to positive changes in the mind of people suffering treatment-resistant depression.
Magic mushrooms are a Class A substance in Britain and a Schedule I substance in the US — the categories for drugs considered to be the most harmful. Possession comes with an up to seven-year and two-year jail term, respectively.
But dozens of studies have linked psilocybin — the psychedelic compound in shrooms — to easing depression.
The latest study, in the New England Journal of Medicine, saw 200-plus patients with treatment-resistant depression given varying amounts of the drug as a one-off treatment, alongside therapy.
Patients who received the highest dose saw the severity of their depression fall most over the course of 12 weeks. They were most likely to go into remission.
Researchers are now progressing to phase three trials, testing its safety and efficacy on a bigger group.
They plan to wrap these tests up within three years, before passing their data to the UK, US and European drug regulators.
Previous studies have found the drug may also ease other mental health problems, such as anxiety, anorexia and addiction.
Scientists believe it works by ‘opening up’ the brains of those with mental health problems — making them more flexible and fluid and less entrenched in negative thoughts — for up to three weeks.
Previous studies have also suggested that psilocybin can also help alcoholics kick their habit.
New York University researchers tracked around 90 heavy drinkers who were given psilocybin or a placebo twice over two months. Results showed those in the test group were twice as likely to give up drinking, and 83 percent more likely to stop drinking heavily.
It’s another Class A and Schedule I drug notoriously taken at parties and raves, which can trigger feelings of alertness, anxiety and panic.
But research suggests ecstasy, also known as MDMA, can ease the flashbacks, nightmares and insomnia that plague those suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
A University of California study that gave 90 PTSD-sufferers a 40mg dose of the party drug, alongside therapy, showed that they no longer suffered the condition after two months.
Research suggests ecstasy (pictured), also known as MDMA, can ease the flashbacks, nightmares and insomnia that plague those suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Neurologists believe it works by boosting trust between patients and their therapists, making therapy more effective.
Psychiatrists at King’s College London are set to begin trialling the drug this year on former servicemen suffering with post-traumatic stress.
Volunteers will take the drug in the company of a therapist in three eight-hour experiences, spaced one month apart. They will also have regular 90-minute therapy sessions.
Researchers say it’s not just that the drug eases poor mental health — but that they make therapy more effective.
It has been suggested that the £1.5 million research project — its financial backers include NHS England — could secure approval for clinical use from UK regulators as early as 2024.
Experts predict MDMA will be the first of these psychedelic substances to soon win approval from UK regulators.
MDMA is already being trialled for severe PTSD in the US, Canada, Israel and Switzerland.
Despite its reputation as a party drug, some studies say ketamine can rid depressed patients of their negative thoughts.
The Class B and Schedule I drug, famously used as a horse tranquiliser, has been licensed as an anaesthetic for years. It is also prescribed in low doses to manage severe pain.
But following a swathe of studies linking it to improved mental health, private clinics can legally prescribe it off-licence for depression in the UK.
The drug can make users feel happy and relaxed but also anxious and confused.
In one study, researchers at the University of Montpellier, in south east France, recruited 160 patients admitted to hospital with suicidal thoughts. Each was given an IV infusion of ketamine or a placebo drug.
Despite its reputation as a party drug, some studies say ketamine (pictured) can rid depressed patients of their negative thoughts
Results showed that twice as many ketamine users were free from suicidal thoughts within three days, compared to the placebo group.
And clinical trials of a Esketamine — a ketamine-based nasal spray developed by Belgium-based drugs company Janssen — showed the drug put 47 per cent of patients into remission and eased symptoms within hours.
However, the UK prescribing body has so far resisted approving ketamine-based treatments for use on the NHS over concerns about their efficacy and cost — despite approvals in the US and EU.
Some doctors have argued the bar of evidence required for mental health treatments to be approved is too high.
DMT, a hallucinogenic Class A and Schedule I drug with similar psychedelic effects to LSD and magic mushrooms, could boost wellbeing, and lower the risk of depression and eating disorders, studies suggest.
The drug, which when possessed can come with a seven-year jail term, can be smoked, snorted or mixed into ‘ayahuasca’ — a traditional Amazonian plant medicine used by some tribes to bring ‘spiritual enlightenment’.
Ongoing UK studies are examining whether DMT — which can users to hallucinate and feel frightened or confused — can alleviate depression in those who haven’t gotten better with traditional drugs and therapy treatment.
The trials, run by Canadian Small Pharma in partnership with Imperial College London, mark the first time DMT has been given to patients with moderate to severe depression in Britain.
It is thought the drug might ‘loosen’ fixed pathways within the brain linked to depression, which can then be reset in talking therapy after a course of the drug.
The drug’s effects have been compared to ‘shaking a snow globe’, throwing negative thought patterns into the air, with therapy then used to resettle thinking.
DMT can be smoked, snorted or mixed into ‘ayahuasca’ — a traditional Amazonian plant medicine used by some tribes to bring ‘spiritual enlightenment’ (pictured)
Previous research had already suggested that DMT could benefit mental health.
This includes University College London a study into ayahuasca — which counts DMT as its active ingredient. It found the so-called ‘jungle tea’ may boost wellbeing and lower the risk of depression.
The UCL researchers, who examined results from the Global Drug Survey, said those who took the plant, which causes hallucinations that last up to six hours, were also less likely to develop eating disorders.
The team said the findings provide ‘further evidence that it may be a safe and promising treatment’.
Ian Hamilton, an alcohol and drugs expert at the University of York, told MailOnline that there is lots of research into the potential of hallucinogenic drugs due to the possibility that they could ‘revolutionise the treatment’ of millions suffering mental health problems.
He said: ‘Although there are some really encouraging findings from research into these drugs as a treatment, many of the research trials combine talking therapy with these drugs.
‘This may work well in research trials; the difficulty is in ensuring this is replicated in the real world where, as many people know, there are long waiting lists to access psychotherapy and other talking treatments.
‘The other potential stumbling block in rolling out this type of treatment is that the therapist dispensing and monitoring these drugs needs to be trained and know what to do if the patient develops side effects.
Mr Hamilton added: ‘In practice what this means is that those that can afford to pay for talking treatments combined with these types of drugs are more likely to get the help they need and therefore benefit from this novel treatment package.
‘Unfortunately this will leave behind those that don’t have the means to pay for this type of treatment, essentially creating a two tier service which is clearly unfair.’