Robin Carhart-Harris has been conducting pioneering brain imaging studies of psychedelics for depression. Most recently, he has completed the first phase of a clinical trial looking at the potential of psilocybin to treat depression, and his talk looks at how these drugs can be used in treatment.

After completing his PhD at the University of Bristol in 2009, Robin moved to Imperial College London, where he has worked for the last few years on the brain effects of LSD, psilocybin (magic mushrooms) and MDMA, conducting some pioneering brain imaging studies of these drugs. Most recently he has completed the first phase of a clinical trial looking at the potential of psilocybin to treat major depression.

LSD for Alcohol Addiction

A 2012 meta-analysis of six controlled trials from the era found LSD’s clinical efficiency for the treatment of alcohol addiction to be as effective as any treatment developed since.

“I personally think it has a great deal of potential for treating addiction,” says Carhart-Harris. “It’s slightly hypothetical, but it’s based on what we know about the way the brain works, which is that it settles into configurations of activity that seem to underly certain psychopathologies.

Psychedelics and Depression

“Depression and addictions rest on reinforced patterns of brain activity, and a psychedelic will introduce a relative chaos. Patterns that have become reinforced disintegrate under the drug. I’ve used the metaphor of shaking a snowglobe. And there’s some evidence that psychedelics induce plasticity, in terms of neural connections in the brain, such that there is a window of opportunity in which connections can either be broken or reinforced. New things can be learned at the same time that old things can be unlearnt. It induces a kind of suppleness of mind.”

Caution, readers might be pleased to note, is the watchword here. “The dangers with psychedelics – and there are potential dangers,” says the doctor, ” arise when they are taken without the proper caution. The model for how the drugs are taken therapeutically is very different from how people might take them recreationally. People are in a particularly sensitive and vulnerable state on psychedelics, and I do think you need that professionalism and structure to have it done properly.”

The doses Carhart-Harris administers are lower than a recreational user might typically take, but if anything the volunteers’ experiences would seem to be more vivid. “When people take psychedelics recreationally, in a social context,” he says, “they might get preoccupied by the perceptual changes and the novelty, and they’ll laugh their way through with a certain amount of confusion and anxiety.

In an experimental context, particularly in the therapeutic context, people lie on a couch with their eyes closed and have a very introspective experience. It’s richer; psychologically, it’s more interesting. Without distractions, emotions and memories are more likely to emerge spontaneously. There is a possibility of having quite vivid recollections of past experiences, such that they’re not past any more and can be re-experienced in the present. It gets very interesting when people start describing where they’re going in their minds. It’s the kind of stuff you just wouldn’t hear ordinarily.”

Read more on psychedelics and depressions here