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Depression and Anxiety Special Report

Treating Mood Disorders With Hallucinogenic Drugs

Many mood disorders can be successfully treated with some combination of medication, psychotherapy, and time. But researchers are always on the lookout for new options, and several are generating interest right now.

Hallucinogens (also called psychedelics) were a promising area of research in the 1960s and early 1970s, when they were being developed as possible treatments for a number of conditions, including depression, anxiety, and chronic pain. These drugs were banned in the '70s and '80s, however, after their recreational use became a widespread problem.

In 1990, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) again began allowing researchers to study the effects of drugs like MDMA (also known as the street drug "Ecstasy"), psilocybin ("magic mushrooms"), and ketamine ("Special K"). These drugs are thought to change the way the brain normally processes information and may provide people with mood disorders a new way of looking at the world and their problems.

MDMA. This illegal, hallucinogenic drug is generating interest to treat a variety of psychiatric conditions -- most notably posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), in which a person experiences chronic psychological stress after a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, war, or sexual assault.

MDMA stimulates the central nervous system, causing the release of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, which can have a powerful effect on thoughts and emotions. MDMA also increases brain levels of oxytocin, which arouses feelings of trust and confidence that can be particularly helpful during psychotherapy. The idea is that a dose of the drug, taken before a talk therapy session, may help individuals with PTSD reduce their fear and anxiety long enough to discuss and process the events that traumatized them.

Psilocybin. Similar to LSD, this illegal, hallucinogenic drug binds to serotonin receptors on neurons and mimics the effects of serotonin. Research is growing on its use for psychiatric conditions. One recent study suggested that the drug psilocybin might be helpful for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Nine people with severe, treatment-resistant OCD were assigned to receive up to four doses of psilocybin ranging from very low (sub-hallucinogenic) to high (completely hallucinogenic) on separate occasions. Participants spent at least eight hours at each session and then stayed overnight in a psychiatric unit for observation. The researchers found that all of the participants had marked reductions in OCD symptoms after taking the drug, and the improvement usually lasted at least 24 hours with no serious side effects.

Ketamine. This hallucinogenic drug is an FDA-approved general anesthetic that is being studied as a fast-acting antidepressant. Ketamine binds to receptors in the brain and blocks the neurotransmitter glutamate that normally activates neurons, thus producing a calming effect.

Bottom line: Hallucinogenic drugs are attracting renewed attention as potential treatments for psychological disorders -- particularly in people who have not responded to conventional treatments. By no means, however, are these drugs accepted treatments for mental disorders, and they should not be tried on your own or outside of a clinical trial. For a list of clinical trials, go to and search under the name of the drug.

Posted in Depression and Anxiety on July 20, 2010


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