Pharmaceutical companies sometimes explain their unimpressive pipelines by saying that it’s become harder to discover and develop new drugs. Believing that the low-hanging fruit has been picked already, manufacturers are focusing on serving small patient populations. But a new paper suggests that the industry may be overlooking the potential of a particular class of drugs to treat tens of millions of patients.
Psychedelics such as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), psilocybin (aka “magic mushrooms”), and ketamine (aka “special K”) are known primarily as recreational drugs. These chemicals cause hallucinations that some enthusiasts in the 1960s saw as a means to expand consciousness, and others as a means of escape. US Food and Drug Administration scrutiny and tragic stories of acid casualties soon focused public attention on the dangers of psychedelics. For years, negative associations and legal restrictions have discouraged researchers from studying these drugs.
Franz Vollenweider of Zurich’s University Hospital of Psychiatry believes that psychedelics could offer bona fide clinical benefits. Studies suggest that the drugs act on the brain circuits and neurotransmitter systems that are altered in patients suffering from depression and anxiety. Coupled with therapy, psychedelics might help alleviate these mental-health problems, according to Vollenweider’s article in Nature Reviews Neuroscience.
The idea of using psychedelics as psychiatric drugs is not new. A recent article in Vanity Fair detailed the practice that therapist Mortimer Hartman and psychiatrist Arthur Chandler set up in the 1950s to treat people they described as “neurotics.” Among their patients was Cary Grant, who reportedly claimed that LSD had deepened his understanding of himself and helped cure his shyness and anxiety.
Psychedelics’ potential for treating mental disorders is intriguing, but it should not be surprising in light of the fact that whether a drug is helpful or harmful often depends on the way a patient uses it. Pharmaceutical companies should take notice of Vollenweider’s paper. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that depression and anxiety afflict a combined 54.8 million American adults in a given year. With more research, the industry eventually could provide a sizeable patient population with beneficial medicines, which would be a win for all involved.