The psychedelics boom: from mental health experiments to gigantic investments

The pain and stress related to covid have quietly launched another pandemic. Depression and anxiety have become so widespread that therapists are overwhelmed. Some decided to seek alternative mental health treatment and found relief in psychedelics.

The statistics are terrifying. If we look at the US, around 40% of adults struggled with substance use or a mental health issue during the pandemic. A study just showed that over a third of coronavirus survivors later suffered from a neurological condition or mental illness.

Once coronavirus ceases to be the main point of public conversation, we’ll hopefully tackle the consequences. Considering the enormous havoc it wreaked in terms of mental health, the momentum of psychedelics will likely keep growing. Companies, investors, and health professionals are already noticing the potential.

People are self-medicating already

The chances are that if you’ve heard about LSD, psilocybin, or DMT in the past, the topic wasn’t their health benefits. Instead, the altered states of consciousness went hand in hand with partying. But now, that conversation is shifting thanks to studies focusing on the treatment of depression and addictions. 

But wait, aren’t psychedelics still mostly illegal? They are. Will that stop people who desperately need them from self-medicating? Absolutely not.

“Given the context of lack of access to psychedelics as medicine via formal channels, people are already using psychedelics as a DIY mental health treatment, and that we need to address that reality,” said Monica Barrett, professor at Australia’s RMIT University, for Lucid News. She believes businesses and physicians need to acknowledge the rising demand. Otherwise, people will help themselves. “We can help bridge this gap between the current situation and a future where psychedelics as medicine are more accessible by creating accredited courses for people who work in the mental health space to help support this group,” she added. 

Psychedelics: from party drugs to mental health treatment

LSD could be a powerful tool for those battling social anxiety. All those party-goers knew it for ages, after all. LSD induces feelings of happiness and trust, makes you more empathetic and connected to people around you. At the same time, it brightens your mood and overall well-being. How? We don’t quite understand the mechanism, and that’s why we need researchers to dig deeper. The what-ifs are just too damn intriguing. 

“I am fascinated by the study of psychedelics not only from a therapeutic point of view but because they help us to understand a lot of brain functions still unknown, like the consciousness, the transcendental thinking, the mysticism, and the empathy toward humanity. All these functions are still a mystery for neuroscience,” said Dr. Gabriella Gobb, head of the Neurobiological Psychiatry Unit at McGill University in Montreal for Lucid News

The hope is here

Besides social anxiety, study after study hints that psychedelics could be life-changing. Psilocybin combined with psychotherapy had an immense effect on people with depression. Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine reported the magnitude was about four times larger than clinical trials have shown for traditional antidepressants. 

“Because most other depression treatments take weeks or months to work and may have undesirable effects, this could be a game-changer if these findings hold up in future ‘gold-standard’ placebo-controlled clinical trials,” Alan Davis, Ph.D., adjunct assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences from the university.

DMT looks very promising as a relief for a depressed brain. As for ketamine, it’s already used by people who don’t respond to traditional treatments. The trials usually combine the drugs with therapy to unlock the full, long-lasting benefits. 

There’s also a darker side to the fervent research. When the competition is tough, things can get ugly. Compass Pathways, for example, has patented synthetic psilocybin, and critics are questioning the company’s ethics. Compass has essentially claimed the right to all prior research on psilocybin, thus blocking competing treatments that could help millions. Clearly, the race is heating up.

Psychedelics can transform the approach to mental health

If you’re still not sold, the people who shape the future of humanity sure are. 

In January, Kernel, a groundbreaking company that can monitor and record brain activity, teamed up with Cybin. This psychedelic research company will use Kernel’s Flow to observe brain activity during psychedelic experiences. Thanks to this collaboration, we should finally see how and where psychedelics affect the brain in real-time. 

Bryan Johnson, Kernel’s Founder and CEO, wrote that we are entering a new era. Specifically, the way we approach mental illnesses will completely transform. We’ll finally move on from subjective self-reporting to quantitative brain activity measurements.

I think often about what it would be like if a cardiologist acted mostly on their patient’s body language and self-report on how their heart was “feeling” instead of looking at the results of the EKG, blood panel, MR, or blood pressure,” he says. Johnson points out that this is how we usually deal with mental health now. Thanks to this collaboration, data will enable more personalized diagnoses and treatments. 

Overall, psychedelics-focused startups are becoming the next hot investment, regardless of legal limitations. Last month, Berlin-based Atai Life Sciences raised $157 million in a Series D. Peter Thiel-backed startup has already hit a $2 billion valuation. Atai founder Christian Angermayer celebrated the news on Twitter, mentioning that this marks the industry’s largest private raise. “We will use this momentum entrusted to us to find solutions for the ravaging #mentalhealth crisis,” he wrote. 

The door to the mind

The magic of psychedelics doesn’t only relate to mental health. Some people are keen to expand their consciousness and open their minds to new experiences. The world-famous futurist Jason Silva is one of those evangelizing the power of altered states. His podcast called Flow Sessions even makes the listener feel as if they had a trip.

As Silva explained to DoubleBlind, he wants to “literally” stretch people’s minds. “There’s been some research on the subject of awe and wonder. What you feel when you’re exposed to something that stretches your mind, the words they use, any experiences in which your models of the world or your frameworks of reality are stretched beyond their normal limits is an experience of awe,” he said. 

He described that such a state increases well-being, compassion, and creativity. Nevertheless, he stresses that we need to deal with psychedelics carefully. Since they make minds more open, theoretically, someone could misuse them to manipulate people in vulnerable states. Caution is crucial, and people should be fully informed before experimenting.

Perhaps Silva’s words should resonate throughout the whole booming industry. Considering how much hope psychedelics carry, we shouldn’t just “co-opt it, monetize it, and sell it back to the people in a stripped away form.”

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