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This Week in Psychedelics: Splashy results stoke criticism, Field Trip splits into two, and the half-truths in psychedelic marketing
Plus: The State of Psychedelics and Fireside partnering with researchers
Happy Friday, and welcome back to The Microdose. Here’s the news of the week:
Field Trip splits into two. Canadian psychedelics company Field Trip announced they will reorganize operations into two divisions: Reunion Neuroscience Inc. and Field Trip Health and Wellness Ltd. Reunion will focus on drug discovery, while Field Trip Health and Wellness will continue operating ketamine- and psychedelic-assisted therapy clinics in the U.S., Canada, and the Netherlands. This split hints at the difficulties of managing a robust research and development division while running multiple clinics. Plus, as Business Insider’s Yeji Jesse Lee reports, the move might be a strategic way to join the emerging psilocybin market in Oregon while dancing around the fact that psychedelics remain illegal federally. “For the most part, US psychedelics companies have said they won't participate in Oregon's psilocybin program, because of the complications of operating in a market that is illegal in the eyes of the US federal government,” Lee reports. “Because offering psilocybin isn't legal on the federal level in the US, [Field Trip] couldn't participate in Oregon's market and remain listed on the Nasdaq.” But this split allows a way around that. As other psychedelics companies grow their R&D or clinical arms, we might see similar reorgs.
Splashy findings stoke skepticism. In April, a Nature Medicine paper suggested that psilocybin-assisted therapy might increase brain connectivity in people diagnosed with depression. The study was published by researchers at Imperial College London, including the founder of the university’s Centre of Psychedelic Research, Robin Carhart-Harris. (Read The Microdose’s 5 Questions for Robin Carhart-Harris.) The paper received widespread coverage; we included it in The Microdose three weeks ago, and publications like The New York Times and Popular Science covered it as well. Recently, a group of researchers have critiqued the study in a document posted to pre-print repository PsyArXiv. (Pre-prints are academic papers that have not yet been peer-reviewed.)
Three researchers from Johns Hopkins and Yale detailed concerns with some of the statistical analyses the authors chose to use, and provided alternative explanations for some of the effects the authors found. They also pointed to the study’s reframing of data from an earlier study; in a 2017 paper, the authors used data from that earlier study to argue that psilocybin increased connectivity in the default mode network (DMN), but in the Nature Medicine paper, data from that same study was used to argue the opposite: a decrease in DMN connectivity. “This raises interesting issues around reanalyzing data and specifying a priori hypotheses based on those initial analyses,” the authors write. They also caution against “hype and misinterpretation”: big claims might overpromise the results of psychedelic therapy, which could “offer false hope to those suffering from depression,” and result in a “cooling effect” in research. On Twitter, the critique’s lead author Manoj Doss, a neuropsychopharmacologist at Johns Hopkins University, said Nature Medicine has rejected their paper. (Read The Microdose’s 5 Questions for Manoj Doss.)
There has never been a more exciting – or bewildering – time in the world of psychedelics. Don’t miss a beat.
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Fireside Project partnering with researchers. Psychedelics non-profit group Fireside Project is best known for their Psychedelic Peer Support Line, where trained volunteers talk with people on psychedelic trips or those supporting them. (Read The Microdose’s 5 Questions interview with Fireside co-founder Hanifa Nayo Washington for more.) Recently, the organization released an impact report detailing its first year milestones and second year projects, which highlights a new endeavor: research. Fireside says they’ve submitted their first study for peer review; the paper assesses “whether Fireside Project reduces reliance on emergency services and lowers the risks sometimes associated with the unsupervised consumption of psychedelics in non-clinical settings.”
The organization also has other studies in the works, some of which will use anonymized data from callers. Most psychedelic studies take place in the lab, or use online surveys where participants provide self-reported data; insights from non-profits like Fireside could provide a new avenue into studying more naturalistic psychedelic use.
The half-truths in psychedelics marketing. The promise of psychedelics as medicine has generated abundant excitement and hope. Advocates and companies often highlight the most promising stories and studies about the power of these drugs — but sometimes, that leads to questionable claims and uncritical coverage. Psychedelics watchdog organization Psymposia recently published a piece on the “hyped and distorted claims of online psychedelic marketing,” which includes critiques of Field Trip’s depiction of Native and Indigenous culture in advertising, a misleading graph created and tweeted by Awakn Life sciences’ co-founder Ben Sessa, Mind Medicine Australia’s music video for a song depicting psilocybin as a miracle cure, and DoubleBlind’s microdosing courses.
Given the rapid expansion of the psychedelics industry, business growth seems poised to outpace new research studies, which often take years from conception to publication — leaving the door open for optimistic claims backed by what is still a nascent science. Plus, if advocates, companies, and organizations rely on misleading claims or anecdotes about psychedelics, it’s unclear how, exactly, to refute or report them. (For example, millions of people likely saw Elon Musk’s tweets over the weekend claiming he’s “talked to many more people who were helped by psychedelics & ketamine than SSRIs & amphetamines,” but it’s likely that many fewer read a Washington Post piece about the medical professionals and researchers concerned about the inaccuracy of Musk’s claims.)
The State of Psychedelics. Activists in Massachusetts have been pushing city governments to deprioritize enforcement of laws against the possession and use of entheogenic plants and fungi. Somerville, Cambridge, Northampton, and Easthampton have already adopted such measures, and two weeks ago, we reported on the Bay Staters for Natural Medicine (BSNM) campaign for the city of Worcester to consider a similar resolution. This week, BSNM issued a press release saying that Amherst has become the fifth city to make the growing or exchange of psychedelic plants “the lowest priority of law enforcement.”
Last week, we reported that Colorado’s House Bill 22-1344 was headed to the Senate floor for a vote. It passed and is now headed to Governor Jared Polis’s desk. The bill legalizes the “prescribing, dispensing, transporting, possessing, and using” of MDMA once the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) approves it, which is anticipated to happen within the next year. (Note that FDA approval is not synonymous with legalization; even if the FDA approves MDMA, the Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA, will still have to take action to reschedule the drug.)
Psychedelics analysis company Psilocybin Alpha has changed their name: they are now Psychedelic Alpha. “When I started writing about psychedelics, psilocybin was at the forefront of clinical research into the ‘true’ psychedelics and the subject of early investor interest,” writes founder Josh Hardman. “Today, psilocybin is just one of a whole host of molecules under investigation, with derivatives, analogs and entirely new chemical entities also the subject of drug development efforts.”
In a VICE piece, journalist Nick Thompson reports on Chris Cantelmo, a biochemist turned DMT evangelist who led a pseudo-cult on Reddit.
Imran Khan has been named the U.C. Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics’ new executive director. Khan previously served as chief executive of the British Science Association and the head of public engagement for the Wellcome Trust, and has recently advised the Translational Psychedelic Research Program at U.C.S.F.
You’re all caught up! Have a great weekend. Stay tuned for a new 5 Questions on Monday.
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