The field of psychiatry has undergone several significant transformations in recent years. One of them is the advent of neuromodulation therapies that promise to help those with treatment-resistant mood disorders. Equally important, neurotech approaches to psychiatric disorders can shed much needed light on the neurological basis of affect, as we report in our article on page 1 of this issue.
But another profound change in the practice of psychiatry is the growing acceptance of psychedelic drugs as a legitimate area of research and therapy. Once a taboo subject in medicine, psychedelics are a frequent topic at scientific meetings and medical journals and several pharmaceutical firms have launched commercial efforts in this area. One such company, the Canadian biotech firm Cybin, recently entered into a technology partnership with neurotech device vendor Kernel. The firms hope that the combination of Cybin’s innovative molecular discovery and clinical study pipelines and Kernel’s brain-sensing Flow devices will offer tools to better analyze the effect of psychedelic therapy on the brain. “Most exciting to me personally is the opportunity to begin exploring a new era of rigorous quantification of the brain and mind before, during, and after a psychedelic experience,” said Kernel founder Bryan Johnson.
The reintroduction of psychedelics into psychiatry is long overdue. Numerous studies support the need for more investigation in this area. Earlier this month, researchers from McGill University reported in PNAS one of the possible mechanisms that contributes to the ability of LSD to increase social interaction.
It is worth examining the reasons why psychedelic drugs were off limits for so long. And it most certainly stems from a perverse “law and order” mentality that sanctioned substances based not on their lethality, toxicity, or addictivity, but on their propensity to produce certain altered states of consciousness. Our nation’s first drug-control czar produced a work titled The Book of Virtues. At some point, we would like the people of that mindset to explain the virtue of locking up millions of Americans—predominantly people of color—for using recreational drugs while accepting campaign contributions from purveyors of tobacco and alcohol. We are well aware of the risks associated with marijuana use, particularly among youth. But ounce for ounce, tobacco has inflicted a far greater cost to society than weed.
As our nation begins to recover from an era in which science was so sadly subservient to politics, it is worth remembering that scientists and clinicians advocating for more rational drug policies were once subject to condemnation, if not worse, from our government. Our political leaders would do well to heed the advice of our founders, who placed a high priority on “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
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