‘The illegality of these drugs … is one of the greatest scandals in modern research’
Greg Miller over WiredScience writes an enticing piece on the development of psychedelic drug usage not just as a recreational activity but also for psychological health benefits. I picked out my favorite excerpts from the article but I recommend going over and reading the whole thing:
“Now that we’ve been able to start getting some evidence on the benefits, it changes people’s calculus,” said Rick Doblin, the founder and executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), one of the meeting’s sponsors.
Doblin and MAPS have been battling regulators since the mid-80s to allow research and clinical trials with psychedelics. The recent revival of psychedelic science may be one sign their efforts are finally paying off.
Public attitudes towards illegal drugs in general may be shifting. A recent Pew Research Center survey, for example, found for the first time that more than half of Americans think marijuana should be legal. Baby boomers in particular, who may have hidden their stash while raising kids, seem to be loosening up in their old age, the survey found.
The interest in psychedelics may also have something to do with a growing sense of frustration over the lack of promising new psychiatric drugs in the pipeline. Many of the current drugs are based on compounds discovered serendipitously in the 1950s, and true innovation has been so hard to come by that many companies are giving up.
Meanwhile, people have been using hallucinogens for centuries, often in religious healing ceremonies, and yes, sometimes just for the hell of it. But just because they’re party drugs for some doesn’t mean they can’t be the subject of serious scientific inquiry. Or does it? After all, it didn’t end so well the first time around.
From its inception in 2010, the Psychedelic Science meeting has brought together an interesting mix of people. A record 1,800 of them attended this year. The prevalence of ponytails, nose rings and hemp accessories is predictably higher than at a typical science conference. There was also a tea lounge, a psychedelic art gallery, and a quiet room for anyone in need of riding out a rough trip.
“Absolutely some scientists would see the rainbow colors on the logo and the psychedelic art exhibits and say ‘that’s not real science,’” said Brad Burge, the communication director for MAPS. At the same time, some of the more mystically inclined devotees of psychedelics are averse to the scientific dissection of what they see as a sacred experience, Burge says. The conference isn’t for the folks at those ends of the spectrum.
Burge acknowledges there’s a tricky balancing act involved in hosting a forum for scientists who want their work to be taken seriously without excluding those who use psychedelic drugs recreationally. Even so, “we’re trying to get around the idea that there has to be a separation,” he said.
After all, this latter group helps fund much of the research through their donations to MAPS and other private organizations like the Heffter Research Institute and Beckley Foundation. Government funders like the National Institutes of Health are still skittish about psychedelic research.
Dráulio Barros de Araújo, a neuroscientist at the Brain Institute at the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil, presented new findings from an fMRI brain scan study with 10 experienced ayahuasca users, followers of Santo Daime, a spiritual practice that uses the brew.
Araújo’s team found that ayahuasca reduces neural activity in something called the default mode network, an web of interconnected brain regions that fire up whenever people aren’t focused on any specific task. It’s active when people daydream or let their minds wander, for example.
The default mode network has been a hot topic in neuroscience in recent years. Scientists don’t really know what it does, but they love to speculate. One interpretation is that activity in this network may represent what we experience as our internal monologue and may help generate our sense of self.
Can Big Science Figure Out Consciousness?
President Obama will soon declare a second ‘decade of the brain.’ The multibillion dollar project, to be run by the Office of Science and Technology, hopes to map the human brain as successfully as the Human Genome Project mapped our DNA code. The considerable resources of the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Department, and the National Science Foundation will be coordinated with universities and private foundations.
The idea is to join the techniques of neuroscience and nanoscience to figure out what causes illness and what creates human consciousness. The scientists involved in project planning are breathlessly excited that this might lead to a paradigm shift. Perhaps we will gain precious insights into alzheimer’s,autism, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. And perhaps we will even understand what makes us most human- how the brain makes mind.
The project is a good idea, but don’t hold your breath that it will lead to any quick clinical breakthroughs or deep insights into human consciousness. We have been down this path before and the clearest lesson is that the brain reveals its secrets reluctantly and in very small packets. The second clearest lesson is the great difficulty translating fantastic basic science into practical gains in clinical diagnosis and care.
The human brain is by far the most complicated thing in the known universe. Its 100 billion neurons each connect to 1000 other neurons and they signal each other constantly through the mediation of dozens of augmenting or inhibiting neurotransmitters. The miracle is not that things sometimes go wrong, but rather that they so often go right.
There won’t be one cause of what we now call schizophrenia or autism- more likely there will be hundreds of different pathways. In figuring all this out, there will be no walks and no home runs- just occasional singles and many strikeouts. This is not wholesale work that can be achieved in any one ‘decade of the brain’; it will be the slow, steady retail slog of many generations of scientists.
We have been this route many times before. The National Institute of Mental Health designated the 1990’s as the Decade of the Brain and much good neuroscience was done. But generally the brain was very selfish in revealing itself and the results failed to live up to expectations.
The neuroscience of the late nineteenth century was similarly brilliant and similarly oversold as being on the cusp of the kind of fundamentalunderstanding that still eludes us- and will for some time.
If you had to bet between the brain’s capacity to hold secrets and our capacity to discover them, the smart short term money should always go on the brain.
That doesn’t mean that President Obama’s project isn’t a great idea. Even if we don’t quickly unlock the mysteries of schizophrenia or consciousness, every little step forward helps. And likely there will be unanticipated gains, particularly in artificial intelligence and brain prosthetics.
Certainly spending money on brain research beats buying yet another aircraft carrier, or continuing tax breaks for oil companies, or perpetuating the monopoly pricing that allows drug companies to rip off billions every year from the government and consumers.
Just don’t expect more than our current tools can deliver. The Human Genome project is one of man’s grandest scientific achievements- but it has had a fairly minimal impact on our nation’s health- much less for instance than the reduction in smoking that has occurred simultaneously.
These AMAZING BRAIN TRICKS demonstrate how your brain processes information. See how your brain works!
In an upcoming issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, a group of British psychologists reports that people who live in cities show diminished powers of general attention compared to people from remote areas. With so much going on around them, urbanites don’t pay much attention to surroundings unless they’re highly engaging.
Instead, as the researchers put it, city dwellers have developed a form of attention that puts priority on “the search for potential dangers or new opportunities.”
Read more. [Image: Shutterstock]
Red Pesto Spaghetti - In Pictures
Sun Dried Tomatoes / Basil / Parmesan / Cashew Nuts / Garlic / Salt / Spaghetti / Mild Olive Oil (1)
ADD water to a pan
BRING to boil on stove
GRAB a handful of Sun Dried Tomatoes
THROW into a food processor
ADD fresh basil, 100g cashews and grated parmesan (2)
WHIZZ the processor to mix ingredients together
DRIZZLE olive oil into bowl while still mixing
STOP when you have a nice loose mixture (3)
TIP spaghetti into boiling water (4)
COOK according to packet instructions
DRAIN spaghetti and pour back into pan
SPOON in a generous amount of pesto
DUST with grated parmesan
GO COOK YOURSELF