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Scientists suggest new look at psychedelic drugs

Mind-altering drugs could be combined with psychotherapy to treat people suffering from depression, compulsive disorders or chronic pain, Swiss scientists say.

Research into the effects of psychedelics, used in the past in psychiatry, has been restricted in recent decades because of the negative connotations of drugs, but the scientists said more studies into their clinical potential were now justified.

The researchers said recent brain imaging studies show that psychedelics such as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), ketamine and psilocybin – the psychoactive component in recreational drugs known as magic mushrooms – act on the brain in ways that could help reduce symptoms of various psychiatric disorders.

The drugs could be used as a kind of catalyst, they said, helping patients to alter their perception of problems or pain levels and then work with behavioural therapists or psychotherapists to tackle them in new ways.

“Psychedelics can give patients a new perspective – particularly when things like suppressed memories come up – and then they can work with that experience,” said Franz Vollenweider from the Neuropsychopharmacology and brain imaging unit at Zurich's University Hospital of Psychiatry, who published a paper on the issue in Nature Neuroscience journal.

Depending on the type of person taking the drug, the dose and the situation, psychedelics can have a wide range of effects, experts say, from feelings of boundlessness and bliss at one end of the spectrum to anxiety-inducing feelings of loss of control and panic at the other.

Vollenweider and colleague Michael Kometer said evidence from previous studies suggests such drugs might help ease mental health problems by acting on the brain circuits and neurotransmitter systems that are known to be altered in people with depression and anxiety.

But if doctors were to use them to treat psychiatric patients in future, it would be important to keep doses of the drugs low and ensure they were given over a relatively short time period in combination with therapy sessions, they said.

swissinfo.ch and agencies


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