As recently as five years ago, the idea of magic mushrooms becoming a federally-approved form of medicine seemed like a joke. But thanks to a new wave of research exploring the therapeutic potential of natural psychedelics, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted psilocybin Breakthrough Therapy status, paving the way for legal psilocybin-assisted therapy.
Clinical studies have already found that psilocybin can effectively treat anxiety and depression or help fight opioid, alcohol, or nicotine addictions. And now that psilocybin has been granted Breakthrough Therapy status, it is easier for institutions to research this fascinating compound. In the past year, researchers have kicked off clinical trials investigating how psilocybin can help treat eating disorders, brain injuries, diabetes, or other ailments.
Most of the research around psilocybin has focused on psychological issues like anxiety and depression, but researchers from the University of California San Diego are hoping to discover if shrooms can also help treat chronic pain. To investigate this potential treatment, UC San Diego has created the Psychedelics and Health Research Initiative (PHRI), one of many new psychedelic research centers that are springing up at universities across the US.
In a new research review published in the Regional Anesthesia & Pain Medicine journal, PHRI members looked at existing studies on psychedelics and pain management. There is currently very little clinical research on the topic, but the research that does exist suggests that natural psychedelics could provide a safe new alternative to addictive opioid medications.
According to the review, previous studies have linked psychedelics to significant, lasting reductions in pain associated with cluster headaches, phantom-limb pain, tinnitus, and other chronic pain conditions. Researchers have found that psychedelics can reset areas of functional connectivity in the brain, which can help reverse the changes in neural connections commonly seen in chronic pain patients.
“Neuropathic pain conditions such as phantom limb pain are often difficult to treat,” said Timothy Furnish, associate clinical professor of anesthesiology and pain medicine at UC San Diego, in a statement. “The possibility that psychedelics could reorganize pain pathways in the brain holds out the promise of a much more long-lasting treatment than current medication can offer.”
Mindfulness can also play an important role in pain management. Studies by PHRI member Fadel Zeidan have found that mindfulness can reduce pain through unique brain processes that are completely distinct from traditional pain relief techniques. Psychedelics can help produce states of mind that are similar to those of experienced meditators, which can potentially help improve the efficacy of mindfulness training for pain relief.
Another PHRI researcher has experienced the healing potential of psilocybin first-hand. In 2016, UC San Diego researcher Albert Yu-Min Lin lost his lower leg in an accident. After the accident, Lin suffered from debilitating phantom-limb pain, but one single session with psilocybin produced an immediate, profound improvement in these symptoms. “Freeing myself of the pain gave me back my life,” Lin explained in a statement.
But apart from this single case study, and some small Japanese studies that used LSD to treat phantom-limb pain, the potential of psychedelics to treat this form of pain has not been explored in a rigorous clinical setting. PHRI is currently planning the first pilot study to explore the therapeutic potential of psilocybin on phantom-limb pain, which will be followed by additional clinical trials and brain imaging research.
“Pain is a very tricky thing,” said Lin. “It can be entirely consuming to those who bear it. But my experience with pain opened a window into the power within the mind to do extraordinary things — to shift the perspective of pain, to potentially remap it away — and if that can help others, it was all worth it.”
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