In the last decade or so psychedelics have come a long way from drugs taken by hippies and war protesters back in the 1960s to effective medicines for treating conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder, severe depression, and substance abuse disorders. Two things have stood out in the studies done to demonstrate the safety and effectiveness of these medicines. They do their work after only one or two doses and the benefits last for years. Compared to standard medicines like antidepressants and meds for anxiety, are the effects of psychedelic medicines permanent?
Psychedelics Usher in a New Era of Psychiatric Treatment
When someone is depressed, their doctor may prescribe one of the many antidepressants that are available. Many of these are quite effective and relatively free of side effects. A drawback is that the person needs to take one or more pills a day for weeks, months, or even years in order to first obtain help and then maintain their improvement. In a sense the medicines are treating symptoms but not the brain wiring that causes the basic condition. It appears to be totally different with psychedelic medicines.
Duration of Improvement with Psychedelic Medicines
This is the case when severe depression, substance abuse disorders, or PTSD are treated by newer antidepressants. All too often, when the person stops taking their pills, the condition returns full force. Thus, there often seems to be no cure for the basic condition. On the other hand, recent research with both psilocybin and MDMA (psychedelic medicines currently under testing by the FDA) shows that these medicines only require one or two doses and have been shown to work for up to six years and counting.
The point is that the mechanism of action of these medicines is to change the “wiring” of the brain in such a way that the patient improves and no longer needs to keep taking the meds. This is like taking an antibiotic to cure an infection instead of bearing up under the symptoms and never really getting better. How can this be?
How Psychedelics Help Relieve Depression and PTSD
When any system in the human body is used repeatedly, it tends to get stronger and more efficient. We see this with weightlifting to build muscle mass, distance training to get ready for a marathon, and even practicing the piano to get better. Unfortunately, there is a small central part of the brain that processes fear and anxiety that also becomes stronger and more efficient with repeated use. This is the amygdala.
The amygdala, also called the fear center, is essential to human life. There are situations where we need to be fearful, react quickly, go into fight or flight mode and be wary of dangerous circumstances in order to stay alive. There are even times when danger is continual and an individual needs to constantly be on their guard. When that is the case the amygdala becomes very active and wariness and fear become dominant factors in a person’s life. The amygdala does care if a person is suffering. It does “care” that the person protects their offspring so that the race survives. Because humans with this tendency to worry, get depressed, and fixate on danger have survived over the eons, the amygdala keeps doing its job.
The Amygdala Does Not Care if You Have PTSD
Your fear center is designed to increase the odds of your kids surviving to have more kids. If that means you have flashbacks about experiences in combat during your years in the military, it does not “care.” Thus, a person who has severe PTSD has a brain that is “wired” to make them worry and see events and circumstances in their current life as dangerous when the danger is long past.
Antidepressants Soothe Don’t Cure While Psychedelics Can Cure
Modern antidepressants typically do a good job of blocking many of the effects of an overactive amygdala but they do not cure the problem. On the other hand, psychedelic medicines work where the “wiring” is to provide more lasting relief from the incessant actions of the amygdala to protect when protection is not necessary. They allow a coach or psychotherapist to help a patient work through past trauma and put things in perspective so that past is past and present is present. In this way psychedelic medicines promise permanent relief cures instead of temporary relief for conditions like PTSD, depression, and substance abuse.