This Week in Psychedelics: Health Canada streamlines psychedelic treatment request system, NIH’s psychedelic Zoom, virtual reality, and hallucinogens in ancient Peruvian politics
NIH hosts psychedelics workshop. This week, in another groundbreaking move, the National Institutes of Health held a Zoom workshop called “Psychedelics as Therapeutics,” attended by some 1,500 guests. Scientists from universities around the world presented on the latest psychedelic research, and representatives from government agencies like the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the FDA spoke on study design and safety regulations. The workshop offered an opportunity for those involved in psychedelic research to discuss next steps for the field as a whole, like defining what constitutes a psychedelic, and areas for further exploration, like the role of the placebo effect and how psychedelics affect learning and memory.
The convening also represents an important ideological shift within the government agencies. Former neuroscientist and psychedelic advocate Teri Krebs tweeted that in one session, the long ban on psychedelics “was described as a ‘failed criminalization policy’ and the role of scientists and clinicians in speaking out about prohibition was discussed” — a sign that the FDA and the community of researchers have moved on from the era in which studying these drugs was taboo. Mount Sinai researcher Rachel Yehuda suggested the workshop signaled more government funding is on the way, as well.
More details and an agenda can be found on the workshop’s Eventbrite page.
Health Canada streamlines patients’ ability to request psychedelic treatment. Over the last 18 months, several dozen Canadians have applied for and received authorization from the Canadian government to begin psilocybin therapy. Their requests were granted in the only way patients could legally obtain psychedelics (besides participating in a clinical trial): by submitting a letter to Canadian health minister Patty Hajdu and waiting for a reply from her. As the number of patients requesting psychedelic therapy grows, such a system is clearly unsustainable — and last week, the Canadian government announced a change that opens up a new avenue for requests from patients who want to try psychedelic treatment.
Rather than waiting for a letter directly from Hajdu, patients’ doctors can now request access through Health Canada’s Special Access Program. The SAP allows physicians to request permission to buy or import drugs unavailable for sale in Canada, but for years, a provision of the program prohibited drugs like MDMA, psilocybin, LSD, and DMT. Health Canada has now repealed that provision so physicians can request these drugs on behalf of their patients. As finance news site Benzinga reports: “this event can be seen as an official acknowledgment of MDMA and psilocybin’s therapeutic potential and might eventually lead to further decriminalization measures.”
There has never been a more exciting – or bewildering – time in the world of psychedelics. Don’t miss a beat.
Virtual psychedelics? Taking drugs that can result in dissociative or hallucinatory states is not for everyone. What if you could experience a psychedelic trip in virtual reality instead? Mic reports on VR psychedelic trips developed by the University of Sussex’s Hallucination Machine and VR company Atlas V’s film Ayahuasca, Kosmik Journey, both of which mimic the visuals you might experience after taking LSD or psilocybin. Mic interviews Johns Hopkins psychedelic researcher Matt Johnson, who says VR’s visual mimicry alone might not be enough to replicate the effects of a full-blown psychedelic experience, but that it’s worth the research to find out what VR can do. Johnson and his team say they’ll soon be starting a study incorporating VR into psilocybin-assisted therapy.
Psychedelic patent applications. It’s a new year, and in the first weeks, we’re already seeing some new patent applications unveiled. In a Twitter thread, psychedelic patent attorney Graham Pechenik laid out some details of three companies’ international patent applications. (Under the Patent Cooperation Treaty, companies can submit a single international patent application that will be considered by many countries at once.) Tel Aviv-based psychedelic start-up PsyRx submitted an application for a combined ibogaine and antidepressant to be used for treating depression and other psychiatric disorders, while US biotech company Gilgamesh submitted an application for treating mood disorders with phenalalkylamines, a class of hallucinogens that includes mescaline. Canada’s Field Trip, known for its ketamine clinics, submitted several tryptamine compounds for consideration. (Tryptamines are a class of compounds that can produce psychedelic states; LSD and psilocybin are among the best-known tryptamines.)
The international patent examiners’ opinions determined that PsyRx’s and Gilgamesh’s applications contained novel but not inventive formulations. (If you read The Microdose’s interview with Pechenik, you might recall that patent examiners determine whether inventions are novel, inventive, or “non-obvious”; the standards by which examiners make their assessments differ by country.) The examiners’ opinion of Field Trip’s application was mixed; about half the claims the company made were deemed both novel and inventive, while the other half were deemed neither. These applications give us a peek into which companies are vying for patents, what formulations they’ve been working on (and therefore, where their research might be heading), and what patent officers make of their claims — all questions other psychedelic companies will be keeping an eye on as they develop their own research programs.
Using ketamine to treat alcohol use disorder. Unlike many drugs that profoundly alter mental states, ketamine is widely available for use as an anesthetic. Recent research has suggested it could be used to treat depression and other mental health issues, and in a new study published this week in The American Journal of Psychiatry, there’s evidence it could help treat alcohol use disorder as well. The study, led by researchers at the University of Exeter, treated people with alcohol use disorder with either a combination of therapy and ketamine infusions, or therapy and a placebo. Over the six month study period, patients who received ketamine reported abstaining from alcohol for more days than those receiving a placebo.
The researchers report that their participants largely knew which experimental group they were in — “nearly all patients in the ketamine group thought they had been given the active drug,” they wrote, while only a third of those in the placebo group believed they received ketamine. Future studies, they suggest, might include an active placebo so that it would be less obvious to participants which experimental group they were a part of — and reduce any effect their expectations about treatment might play in the overall results.
Psychedelics in ancient politics. The tree Anadenanthera colubrina, also known as vilca, is native to South America; its seeds and bark contain hallucinogenic tryptamines like DMT. For millennia, people living in the Peruvian Andes have harvested vilca for its medicinal powers. In a paper published in Antiquity, archaeologists present evidence via excavations that ancient peoples used vilca, and that its use shaped the politics of the Central Andes, especially in the Wari state that held power in 600-1000 AD. “The considerable effort required to obtain the hallucinogen suggests that the use of vilca to access the supernatural through altered states of consciousness was an important part of the Wari political economy,” the authors write. Wari leaders hosted feasts where they added vilca to local beer, making for a communal spiritual experience that allowed leaders “to legitimize and maintain their heightened status.”
You’re all caught up! Have a great weekend, and stay tuned on Monday for 5 Questions, our weekly Q&A with a leader in the psychedelics space.
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