#176: Breaking the Psychedelic Research Logjam with Dr. David Nichols

April 14, 2017

Psychedelics are endlessly fascinating:  the preliminary research shows so many incredible therapeutic benefits and yet there’s so much we still don’t know.

The exciting news is that the taboo surrounding psychedelics (a relic from the demonization of liberals during the Vietnam War) is slowly receding.

We’ve had a lot of big names in psychedelics on the show, and we’re excited to add another world-renowned expert to their ranks:  Dr. David E. Nichols, PhD.  Dr. Nichols is President and Co-Founder of the Heffter Research Institute, a privately funded institute dedicated to researching psychedelic agents.

Dr. Nichols has studied all of the major classes of psychedelic agents and is one of the foremost experts on the medicinal chemistry of hallucinogens.  So press play, sit back, and enjoy.

Why Are Psychedelics Unique?

This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but Dr. Nichols points out two interesting aspects that make psychedelics unique among drugs.  First of all, psychedelics are the only class of drugs where “set and setting” have a major impact on the user’s experience.

What that means is that the conditions under which you take psychedelics will have a major impact on how much you enjoy your experience.  “Set” refers to your mental expectations of what’s going to happen and the headspace you’re in when you take psychedelics.  “Setting” is the physical location where you take the drugs.

Secondly, despite theories that our personalities are set from a young age, psychedelic use causes a permanent change to the quantifiable personality trait of openness.  The trait of openness includes being open to new ideas, being generous, having humanitarian traits.

This long-term side effect of psychedelic use is one of the reasons psychedelic research is so exciting — think of the benefits to the world if we all felt a little more humanitarian.

Therapeutic Uses of Psychedelics

We don’t have all day, so we won’t list every promising use for psychedelics.  But if it involves depression, addiction, or other illnesses that affect mood, psychedelics probably can help.

LSD can help cancer patients accept their mortality and make their remaining time easier.  It can change perspectives on death and dying.  Psilocybin has a similar effect.

When combined with talk therapy, a single dose of psychedelics can treat depression for months.  Compare that to SSRIs which take months to become effective and must be taken regularly.

Psychedelics are also effective at treating addiction.  In a meta-analysis, LSD was shown to increase rates of sobriety in alcoholics.  It’s also been shown to give long-term smokers a ~60% abstinence rate one year after a single psychedelic treatment coupled with psychotherapy.  Compare that to a 30-35% abstinence rate for Chantix, a leading smoking cessation medicine.

LSD vs Psilocybin

Dr. Nichols has spent significant amounts of time studying both LSD and psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms), but when conducting research in the late 1990s tended towards using psilocybin.  Here’s how he breaks down the differences between LSD and psilocybin.

  • The trip on psilocybin is significantly shorter.  A standard dose of psilocybin will last about 6 hours, while an ordinary dose of LSD will last 8-10 hours.
  • Psilocybin has less of a stigma attached to it than LSD, which is better known.
  • LSD has some “weird” additional psychoactive effects.  For the first half of a trip, it’s a typical psychedelic experience — users feel euphoric.  But the second half can feel more like amphetamine psychosis with a lot of paranoid thinking going on.

Ultimately, Dr. Nichols and his team chose psilocybin for many of their studies for both practical reasons (desire to avoid a media frenzy; being able to send people home at night instead of having to keep them in the lab overnight saves money) and due to the additional psychoactive effects of LSD.  But, he cautions us, we just don’t know if LSD works better than psilocybin in some areas.

To listen to our entire series on psychedelics, click here.

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