Psychedelic drugs, also termed hallucinogenic or psychotomimetic drugs, induce transient states of altered perception resembling or mimicking the symptoms of psychosis and are characterized by profound alterations in mood. Because psychedelic drugs have been poorly studied since the 1970s (when research investigating these drugs fell out of favor) and can have extreme effects on individuals, they are highly regulated, prohibited, or illegal in many countries around the world. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted approval for clinical trials involving the use of psychedelic drugs to treat a number of psychiatric or mental disorders, including depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anorexia, alcoholism, opioid dependence, and other affective (mood) or addictive disorders. In addition, clinical trials are being conducted in other countries besides the United States, including Switzerland and the United Kingdom. See also: Addiction and addictive disorders; Affective disorders; Alcoholism; Anorexia nervosa; Anxiety disorders; Brain; Depression; Hallucination; Mental disorders; Perception; Posttraumatic stress disorder; Psychopharmacology; Psychosis; Psychotomimetic drugs
Treating mental disorders can be challenging. Commonly prescribed medications to treat anxiety or depression often have mixed results, with individuals displaying low levels of responsiveness or little improvement. Alternative drug compounds for potential therapeutic use in individuals suffering from these and other psychiatric disorders are therefore in demand. Intriguingly, a number of investigations indicate that psychedelic compounds, including psilocybin (the active ingredient found in hallucinogenic "magic mushrooms") and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), may be more effective than present-day administered drug therapies. In particular, levels of cancer-related depression and anxiety have decreased dramatically in patients provided with trial therapies involving psilocybin. Such individuals required fewer therapeutic regimens of psilocybin compared to therapies with nonpsychedelic drugs, and improvements in mental health persisted for longer periods of time following psilocybin treatment. In addition, no detrimental side effects have been reported thus far in individuals treated with psychedelic compounds in clinical trials.
Psychedelic compounds are believed to be efficacious in treating mood disorders because these compounds stimulate serotonin receptors in the brain. Serotonin is a key neurotransmitter that is released throughout most of the brain and spinal cord by neurons originating in the brain stem. It has numerous known physiological and behavioral roles, and many specific pharmacologic drugs have been developed for the treatment of serotonin-related disorders. For example, drugs that increase the levels of serotonin within the brain or that interact with serotonin's receptors have been utilized to relieve depression, mood disorders, anxiety, and aggressive behavior. See also: Neurobiology; Pharmacology; Serotonin
Researchers anticipate that more conclusive and positive data concerning candidate drugs in clinical trials will help to expedite the use of psychedelic compounds in the public arena. Still, further studies are necessary to understand the long-term consequences of the use of potential therapeutic drugs, especially those with hallucinogenic properties. Through rigorous pharmacological testing, though, scientists hope to overcome the stigma attached to the use of psychedelic drugs. There has been a remarkable shift in public attitude toward the use of marijuana in recent years, with many governmental jurisdictions decriminalizing the drug or making it legal. It remains to be seen if the benefits of psychedelic drugs to improve the lives of psychiatric patients could lead to a similar shift in thought and legal status. See also: Marijuana; Pharmaceutical chemistry; Pharmaceuticals testing