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Researchers are exploring the medical frontier of psychedelics, and their use in facilitating psychotherapy for common mental illnesses, writes CHRIS JOHNSTON.
There’s a story from way back in Australian scientific history about the Melbourne psychiatrist, Dr John Cade. He was the one to first discover the mood-stabilising effects of lithium in 1949, a breakthrough that has great resonance today, given the urgent quest for new mental health medicines.
Lithium remains one of the most prescribed medicines in mental health, for bipolar disorder. But it’s one of very few of the “old” psychiatric drugs that still work well for most people most of the time.
Ambitious new science for treating poor mental health, like Dr Cade’s, is fast emerging.
Cade was the son of a doctor, born in the Victorian wheat town of Murtoa. At the time of his earliest discoveries, the only Western treatments for mental illnesses were a lobotomy or electric shocks. His singular finding – that lithium carbonate worked on bipolar – meant it became the oldest mental illness medicine still commonly used.
He was already practising before World War II, in Melbourne, then went to war in Singapore with a field ambulance unit. He was captured and sent to Changi prison for three years, but was able to keep observing patients in a prison hospital, and began to conduct experiments on nutrition, but also “mania” (as it was called then) via patients’ urine.
After the war and safely back in Melbourne, he began working at a repatriation hospital, and continued his experiments using a disused kitchen as a makeshift lab.
He eventually published his findings on 10 patients with “psychotic excitement”, “mania” or “manic depression” – what we now know as bipolar disorder – in the Medical Journal of Australia.
According to Nature, the paper “went largely unnoticed at the time”, but after more detailed work by two Danish psychiatrists through the 1960s – with data published in 1971 – Dr Cade’s formative role was finally appreciated.
The times are changing in mental health research
While far from a cure, lithium remains one of the more effective psychiatric medications, particularly in the treatment of the manic phase of bipolar.
However, most available psychiatric treatments aren’t able to adequately treat about one-third of people with a mental illness – and present with substantial side-effects. Most, also, take up to a month to begin working.
As rates of mental health disorders in the community continue to climb, the early promise of psychiatry as a brain-based solution to mental distress hasn’t been fulfilled.
But times are changing. In March this year, Australia’s federal government committed $15 million to explore a new frontier in mental health research – psychedelics, and their use in facilitating psychotherapy for common mental illnesses.
A month before the landmark government funding announcement, the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System highlighted the severity of the mental health crisis, and the lack of new and effective medicinal treatments.
These milestones represent a seismic shift in both research potential and traditionally conservative thinking regarding the possibilities of compounds such as psilocybin (the psychoactive substance in “magic mushrooms”) and MDMA (the active substance in some street “ecstasy”), the likes of which have remained prohibited – except for very limited research purposes – since former US president Richard Nixon’s “War on Drugs” in the 1970s.
Heading into 2022, Melbourne is again at the forefront of new mental health research. Monash University has embarked on cross-faculty psychedelic research, which includes the country’s largest clinical trial, led by Dr Paul Liknaitzky.
Results from small clinical trials internationally are so far overwhelmingly positive. A few mostly small hospital or university trials are also underway (or approved) elsewhere in Australia, looking into psilocybin in the treatment of end-of-life distress, depression, and methamphetamine use disorder.
“Monash has a deep breadth of expertise in medicinal chemistry, pharmacology, psychiatry and psychology, as well as our ability to draw on leading experts in the neuropsychopharmacology field through our global networks,” says the Dean of the Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences (FPPS), Professor Arthur Christopoulos.
“The bottom line for me is that mental ill-health was always a big problem before COVID, and it’s only getting worse. The time is right to link up these activities and drive novel neuromedicine research for psychiatric illnesses.”
The role of psychedelics throughout history
In many ways, it’s a case of back to the future. Cultural histories suggest that many ancient civilisations in Mexico, South America, Siberia and Europe utilised the effects on consciousness of some psychedelic fungi and plants. buy lsd online Canberra, Buy Lsd blotters in Canberra, Order lsd tabs online Canberra, Buy acid tabs , buy lsd acid sheets, order lsd crystals Canberra
The nexus between mental health treatment and psychedelics goes back to the 1940s, but it later effectively stopped after the drugs became increasingly researched by scientists but also used in the wider community, out of scientific hands. The result was a politically-driven moral panic and bans.
“The problem,” says Monash’s Department of Psychiatry head, Professor Suresh Sundram, “is that despite the insights we’ve seen, we haven’t had any major improvement in their development.
“We want to subject psychedelics to the proper rigour that should have been done back then. From these data we want to see if we can establish a paradigm shift towards a new, precision approach to the treatment of psychiatric disorders.”