The Trippy Science of Psychedelic Studies

After I signed up for one, I started to dig into their data. That’s when things got weird.

Elitsa Dermendzhiyska
Elemental
Published in
12 min readAug 22, 2019

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A photo of magic mushrooms, Psilocybe semilanceata, covered in frost.
Magic mushrooms, Psilocybe semilanceata, covered in frost. Photo: Andrew Hasson/Getty Images

I’I’ve never been the kind of person to gush about mind-altering drugs. In fact, it takes only the slightest whiff of woo-woo to send me rolling my eyes — hard, with gleeful abandon. But when I tell people I’ll be taking a not-insignificant dose of psychedelics as part of a research study to treat depression, no shock ensues.

We live in a psychedelic renaissance where tripping for divine revelation or high productivity is fast becoming a trend. But what really interests me is the scientists — in particular, those who talk about treating depression and dissolving the ego, all in the same breath.

The research team I’ve picked at Imperial College London (ICL) is one of a few exploring the potential for psychedelics to treat intractable mental illnesses. The results of their work so far have been impressive. For instance, in a 2016 study, all 12 of the volunteers (all of whom struggled with treatment-resistant depression) saw relief. Eight were depression-free after just one week, five of those stayed in remission, and two others sustained a significant reduction in symptoms at the three-month follow-up. Other psychedelic studies have shown similar promise in helping people with alcohol addiction, smoking, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and cancer-related anxiety — and all it often takes is a single hit of the drug.

While participating in the study, I’ll make seven visits to the lab. Each will be between two and eight hours long and I’ll undergo two MRI scans, 90 minutes each. By the end of the study, I’ll have taken two doses of psilocybin (either high or low), the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, and six weeks of pills — placebos or antidepressants (escitalopram) — in between.

For some reason, I find myself completely untroubled by the high substance dose — 25mg, enough to produce a full-blown, out-of-control, out-of-body experience for someone of my weight. What bothers me more is the idea of being trapped for 90 minutes inside the noisy sarcophagus of the MRI machine. Not because of claustrophobia, mind you, but because of boredom. This is the thing I’ll later look back on and regret the most: that…

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Elitsa Dermendzhiyska
Elemental

Social entrepreneur & editor of ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’ — deeply personal stories by 13 authors & thinkers https://amzn.to/3dFG683