Tune in, drop out: The future of psychedelic science
Psychedelic treatments have been laughed out of labs since the 1960s, but a new wave of research is changing people’s minds. Writer Samuel Fishwick talks to Maarten van Huijstee, founder of Spinoza, about the power of psilocybin
By Samuel Fishwick
Psychedelics are no longer the stuff of shamans and shady frat parties. After half a century, the active ingredient of magic mushrooms, psilocybin, is inching its way into the cultural mainstream. In April, Imperial College London – which opened the world’s first Centre for Psychedelic Research in 2019 – published a study that showed psilocybin could be as effective in treating depression as a leading antidepressant. And across the pond, Silicon Valley evangelists swear by tiny microdoses to boost productivity. In the first quarter of 2021 alone, psychedelic medicine start-ups raised US$329m from venture capitalists betting on a safe future for a destigmatised drug.
‘There is serious science here,’ says Maarten van Huijstee, CEO of the Dutch start-up Spinoza, a company aiming to change people’s minds about (and with) psilocybin. He thinks that in the midst of a global pandemic, there’s never been a better time to talk about the mental health benefits of psychedelics. ‘Preventative healthcare, if you want to put it like that,’ he says. Indeed, psychedelics are entering ‘a second golden age in the US and Europe,’ says news platform Quartz, after a decades-long dark age that followed the collapse of government-backed – and sometimes scientifically dubious – research in the hippie heydays of the 1960s.
The chemical psilocybin was first synthesised in 1959 by the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann, who also discovered LSD, and it’s still very much illegal in most countries. (Jamaica and the Netherlands are exceptions, while Portugal decriminalised all drug possession in 2001). Former US President, Richard Nixon, considered its perspective-altering effects so dangerous to the Vietnam War effort, and American consumerism, that he pulled all state-funded research in 1970.
By sticking a human inside a brain scanner, though, we have some clue about what psilocybin does to the mind. Usually, your sense of self, ability to imagine your future and recall memories of the past are all funnelled through an interconnected bit of your brain called the Default Mode Network (DMN) – an area that’s particularly overactive in depressed people. When someone takes psychedelics, the DMN switches off; at the same time, other bits of the brain communicate with each other more than they normally do, perhaps forging new neural pathways that override old, destructive patterns of thinking. ‘It’s like fresh snow falls down on the mountain and you can make new tracks,’ says van Huijstee.
Van Huijstee, the clean-cut husband and father of three who gave up drinking nine years ago, doesn’t seem like a 1960s flower child, but has his own reasons for swearing by psychedelics. A former lawyer and advertising director, and founder of Delight Yoga, ‘the biggest yoga school in Holland’, he’s had a busy career.
Alongside meditation, he says psilocybin has played a fundamental role in rolling back stress. ‘Most people are going through life at speed, and then they die, and maybe that’s good for them,’ says van Huijstee. But the frenetic pace of our material lives places us under unmanageable strain. ‘There are a lot of advertisers and marketers constantly giving you the message that what you have now is not good enough. The body and mind can’t cope with always doing something. It needs a rest, it needs a reset.’
Spinoza runs legal retreats at its meditation cabins in the ‘fairy tale’ forests of Amsterdam. Here, van Huijstee reminds clients how to just do nothing. After applicants sign up, at a cost of €5,000, they’re divided into groups of 7 with a mentor and therapist. They’ll have 5 psychedelic experiences with legal truffles, and mycelium containing natural psilocybin that is combined with meditative practices and music experiences over a 12 week period.
‘We need to be careful,’ admits van Huijstee, whose team painstakingly screens applicants for sensitivity and adverse reactions. But in laboratories, the results are promising. Since 2006, more than a dozen papers have cited psilocybin as a useful treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder, tobacco addiction, alcoholism, depression, and the anxiety that so often afflicts people when they’re approaching death.
Early trials of naturally occurring psychedelics continue to excite researchers. Ibogaine, a compound extracted from the African iboga plant, is being explored as a cure for addiction – but it’s illegal and possibly deadly. It can be packed into a pill that allows users to enter a waking dream state and rewatch a movie of their lives that will pull up any traumas, which sounds transformative. But its perilous properties highlight the painstaking work labs must be sure of if psychedelics are to be safe. There are at least 10 deaths known to be associated with the drug, and its unregulated use has prompted some horror stories of ‘excruciating’ trips.
Market analysts believe that the global psychedelics market could be worth US$10.75bn by 2027 – despite the ethical and legal obstacles researchers must overcome. It’s a big bet. But dazzling lab breakthroughs give van Huijstee a drum to bang, and he’s only just getting started.
Click here to learn more about Spinoza.