Depression Psychedelics Treatment

Experimental depression psychedelics treatment began back in the 1950s, when patients diagnosed with terminal illnesses were given psychedelic drugs to reduce depression. 70+ years later, psychedelics (MDMA and psilocybin) have been officially approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) in Australia as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and treatment-resistant depression (TRD).

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Experimental depression psychedelics treatment began back in the 1950s, when patients diagnosed with terminal illnesses were given psychedelic drugs to reduce depression. 70+ years later, psychedelics (MDMA and psilocybin) have been officially approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) in Australia as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and treatment-resistant depression (TRD).

Research shows promise, although it’s still in the early stages. Here’s all you need to know about treating depression with psychedelics, understanding how they work, and figuring out if you’re a candidate for this kind of treatment.

Would you prefer to avoid medicinal treatments? Book a free introductory appointment with one of our TMS practitioners to find out if our treatments could work for you.

What are Psychedelics?

Psychedelics (also called hallucinogens) are a group of substances known to alter the mind. This includes altering a person’s mood, perception, and cognitive processes.

These substances do this by reducing the amount of energy needed for the brain to change its state. Psychedelics affect the serotonin receptors in the brain, which leads to more diverse activity in the brain. This also explains the uplifting effect psychedelics have on mood. Psychedelics are often derived from various parts of plants, although some modern psychedelics are synthesised in a lab.

What are the Common Psychedelics used for Depression Treatment?

Psychedelics Used for Depression Treatment
Different Psychedelics for Depression Treatment

There are four main psychedelics approved for use in depression treatment: psilocybin, LSD, MDMA, and ketamine.

  • Psilocybin (magic mushrooms): Studies have shown success for TRD, as well as end-of-life distress.
  • LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide): The first drug used in the 1950s to treat depression. Studies show promise when it comes to anxiety and depression.
  • MDMA (Ecstasy): Increases feelings of connectedness and empathy, which may be beneficial in treating PTSD, major depressive disorder, and other trauma-related conditions.
  • Ketamine: Not a classic psychedelic, but has proven to have fast-acting antidepressant effects.

How Have Psychedelics Been Used in Mental Health Treatments?

Back in the 1950s, LSD showed great promise for reducing depressive symptoms. However, initial research efforts were stopped in 1962. The US Congress passed a new drug safety bill, which classified LSD as an experimental drug and reduced its availability for research.

By 1967, it was common on the streets of America, which led the government to ban the drug altogether. Australia followed suit and banned various psychedelics in the 1980s. In the 1990s, there was a new interest in LSD for medical purposes.

Currently, clinical trials researching psychedelics for depression are underway. While showing great promise, the trials are limited due to the strict laws around these drugs.

Why Consider Depression Psychedelics Treatment?

Depression psychedelics treatment is being explored for its ability to cause profound experiences. This brings the brain into a state where it may be introspective, process emotions more easily, and build new neural pathways through stimulated neuroplasticity. Here’s why psychedelics are seen as a promising form of treatment for depression.

Ineffectiveness of Conventional Treatments for Some Patients

People with TRD don’t respond to conventional therapies and medications. However, research has proven psychedelics to work for many of these patients! They offer hope where other treatments have failed.

Psychedelics’ Unique Impact on Brain Function

Psychedelics work on different neurotransmitters when compared to regular antidepressants. But they also induce a profound change in consciousness, which normal medication and therapies don’t.

This affects the connections within the brain and stimulates neuroplasticity. Consequently, psychedelics for mental health stimulate the brain in a way that forces it to build new neural pathways and process intense emotions in a safe and often deeply moving way. These effects can help patients progress through treatment much faster than traditional therapies can.

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Mechanism of Psychedelics in Treating Depression

How Psychedelics Work On Your Brain
How Psychedelics Affect Your Brain

Psychedelics treat depression by modulating serotonin levels, disrupting negative thinking patterns, and increasing neural connectivity.

Serotonin System Modulation

Psychedelics use the brain’s 5-H2A serotonin receptors. Unlike serotonin, they cross the outer membrane and bind to the inner receptor, where they boost the growth of structures called dendritic spines.

Increased Neural Connectivity

Dendritic spines create connections between neurons. As psychedelics help them grow, your brain will form new neural connections. This is called neuroplasticity, and it helps your brain to learn how to change or reorganise neural networks. This can be invaluable for coping with depression.

Default Mode Network (DMN) Disruption

Psychedelics may also reduce the activity of your “Default Mode Network.” This brain network is linked to overthinking, which may be overactive in people with depression.

Benefits of Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy

Depression psychedelics treatment can reduce acute depression symptoms, maintain an uplifted mood over time, increase self-awareness, and improve emotional processing.

Significant Reduction in Depression Severity

Studies show that psychedelics can have a noticeable positive effect on depression symptoms. Research on psilocybin, ayahuasca, and LSD showed that daily, weekly, and even monthly symptoms were greatly reduced.

Sustained Mood Improvement over Months

Not only do psychedelics reduce symptoms, but there’s evidence that they help patients maintain a heightened mood over months, even up to a year. Indeed, a study by Schmid and Liechti published in Psychopharmacology in 2017 on the long-term effects of LSD shows that most people reported sustained mood improvement.

According to this study, at 1 month and 12 months after a single-dose LSD treatment, participants reported:

  • Positive attitudes about life
  • Uplifted moods
  • Improved social interactions
  • Behavioural changes
  • Increased life satisfaction

Enhanced Self-Awareness and Emotional Processing

In clinical trials, one of the common reports is of increased clarity of thought and an openness to new emotional experiences. Notably, most psychedelics in depression treatment are classified as entheogens. These drugs are associated with shifts of perspective, reframing experiences, and deep introspection.

Potential Risks of Psychedelics Treatment

Although psychedelics are considered safe in carefully measured doses, negative side effects may occur in some people. These could include anxiety or paranoia, occasionally long-term visual disturbances, and psychotic breaks in rare cases.

Acute Psychological Risks

As everyone responds differently to psychedelics, there’s a chance of developing heightened anxiety and paranoia. In severe cases, “bad trips” can happen, which often lead to scary hallucinations. Moreover, people with a family history of psychosis could be at risk of a psychotic break if using psychedelics.

Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder

Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder (HPPD) occurs when a person experiences persistent hallucinations or distortions (mostly) in their visual perception. These could include “visual snow”, floaters, altered colours, bright lights, and distorted size or motion perception. HPPD can feel like a flashback to the original hallucinogenic experience but is thought to be quite rare.

Legal and Regulatory Landscape

Most psychedelics are still illegal, making them much harder to access and research. However, Australia became the first country in the world to down-schedule MDMA and psilocybin to make them available for treatment.

They have both been down-scheduled from schedule 9 (prohibited) to schedule 8 (controlled drugs). Both drugs are only allowed to be used in psychedelic-assisted therapy with a qualified psychiatrist.

Who Is Eligible for Psychedelic Treatment? (Subject to Change)

Patients diagnosed with TRD may be eligible for psychedelic treatment. However, the TGA also has strict guidelines on who is allowed to prescribe psychedelics and who is allowed to import them.

Practitioners who want to prescribe MDMA or psilocybin must first do a fellowship with the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP). After that, they must submit a protocol to the Human Ethics Research Committee (HREC). Once approved, the practitioner can begin to screen patients.

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How to Access Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy in Australia

How to Access Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy in Australia
Steps for Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy in Australia

For a patient to access psychedelic therapy in Australia, they must be diagnosed with TRD, be referred to an authorised psychiatrist, and go through an approval process. Here’s the full process:

  1. Eligibility Check: Patients must have a diagnosis of TRD, with proof that standard treatments haven’t worked.
  2. Referral to an Authorised Psychiatrist: Treatment can only be prescribed by TGA-authorised psychiatrists.
  3. Pre-Treatment Approval and Preparation: Patients undergo a psychological evaluation to make sure they are suitable candidates. This evaluation also helps to set expectations for the treatment.
  4. Therapy Sessions: A trained, authorised professional will conduct the sessions in a carefully controlled environment. A strictly measured dose will be administered. It could be in a single session or across multiple sessions.
  5. Integration Therapy: Following the psychedelic experience, patients usually have additional psychotherapy sessions to help integrate their experiences into their everyday lives.
  6. Follow-Up and Monitoring: After the treatment, patients are closely monitored to manage any potential side effects. They will continue to be monitored for months up to a year after the treatment to gauge the effects of the treatment.

Depression Psychedelics Treatment FAQs

Are psychedelics covered by Medicare?

Unfortunately not. Ketamine, MDMA, and psilocybin mushroom therapy are available by prescription. But out-of-pocket costs could rise to $25,000 or more, according to Dr Stephen Bright, a Director at Psychedelic Research in Science & Medicine (PRISM).

What happens after psychedelic treatment?

Patients who have psychedelic treatment may need extra support after the treatment. This could include extra counselling to process emotions, changes in nutrition, activity levels, and sleep patterns, and stress management practices.

Dr Paul Liknaitzky, Head of Clinical Psychedelic Research at Monash University, states that patients may be dealing with a dramatically altered perception of the world around them or of themselves. For this reason, it’s also a good idea to join a support group or community of those who have had similar experiences.

Depression Psychedelics Treatment FAQs

  • Unfortunately not. Ketamine, MDMA, and psilocybin mushroom therapy are available by prescription. But out-of-pocket costs could rise to $25,000 or more, according to Dr Stephen Bright, a Director at Psychedelic Research in Science & Medicine (PRISM).

  • Patients who have psychedelic treatment may need extra support after the treatment. This could include extra counselling to process emotions, changes in nutrition, activity levels, and sleep patterns, and stress management practices.

    Dr Paul Liknaitzky, Head of Clinical Psychedelic Research at Monash University, states that patients may be dealing with a dramatically altered perception of the world around them or of themselves. For this reason, it’s also a good idea to join a support group or community of those who have had similar experiences.

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Dr Shanek Wick – Author Bio

Dr. Shanek Wick, a distinguished Fellow of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, specialises in holistic mental health care with a focus on interventional psychiatry, neurostimulation, and addiction.

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