In a fascinating interview today on NPR’s Fresh Air, Terry Gross interviewed Lauren Slater about her new book Blue Dreams, which takes a skeptical yet compassionate approach to the history of psychopharmacology. In the interview, Slater discusses how psychedelic drugs have been used very successfully at three different treatment centers (Johns Hopkins, N.Y.U., and U.C.L.A.) to treat anxiety patients at the end of life. You might listen to minutes 18:30-22:40 to learn more:
Slater explained that when you take MDMA (commonly known as ecstacy), you are loaded up with oxytocin and feel full of love and empathy. It’s thought that thinking through the anxiety producing trauma, in this wholly different frame of mind, moves the fear into a new narrative stored in a different part of the brain. She also explained how psilocybin (“magic mushrooms”) have been used to treat anxiety about death. She said that patients only need to use the drug one to three times (carefully controlled for set and setting with a goals w/treatment team). Patients describe afterwards how they came to view death as a change, rather than an end; they came to believe that there was more to the world, something bigger, something beyond this life.
Hearing the interview led me to find Slater’s New York Times article, How Psychedelic Drugs Can Help Patients Face Death from 2012 http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/magazine/how-psychedelic-drugs-can-help-patients-face-death.html Another great article from the Times on the treatment can be found here: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/01/health/hallucinogenic-mushrooms-psilocybin-cancer-anxiety-depression.html. Leading psychopharmacologist Roland Griffiths at Hopkins talks about the ways that psychedelic drugs can be used to create spiritually meaningful, personally transformative experiences for all patients, especially the terminally ill. “After transcendent experiences, people often have much less fear of death.” His TedMed Talk can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=81-v8ePXPd4&t=3s
Richard Nixon described Timothy Leary as “the most dangerous man in America,” and we are still living under certain stereotypes about the 60s and these drugs. I, for one, never tried them based on that ingrained fear. However, the fact that psilocybin is found in nature and has been used medicinally for thousands of years makes me yearn to listen closely to these serious, sober doctors at the finest research institutions doing research in ways that could make living, and the end of life, less stressful and more meaningful.