in April 2021, A much-anticipated publication in the field of psychedelics has arrived. The study, a small test run at Imperial College London and published in That New England Journal of Medicine, studied the use of psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, to treat depression. The research, led by Robin Carhart-Harris, who now heads the Neuroscape Psychedelics Division at the University of California, San Francisco, compared psilocybin to a standard antidepressant. The results were somewhat lackluster: it turned out that the psychedelic was only marginally better than traditional treatments at relieving depression.
Back in 2017, Rosalind Watts, an author of this article and former clinical lead on the study at Imperial, gave a TEDx talk about the power of psilocybin to treat depression, inspired by the time she spent working on the study. In the talk, she shared her belief that psilocybin could “revolutionize mental health care.” But in February of this year, Watts released a Medium piece in which she expressed regret at her initial unbridled enthusiasm. “I can’t help but feel like I’ve unwittingly contributed to a simplistic and potentially dangerous narrative about psychedelics; a narrative I’m trying to correct,” she wrote.
“I was just thinking about how I got myself into the black and white of ‘That’s wonderful,'” she says now. “Now that I’ve been through this exam… I’m a lot more neutral and agnostic.”
We are in the midst of a psychedelic renaissance, in which substances that have long been considered simply recreational drugs – like psilocybin, LSD, and MDMA – are being re-evaluated as potential treatments for a range of mental illnesses. At the same time, the legislation and stigma surrounding psychedelics has slowly been easing in recent years, and it increasingly looks like it may be easing altogether. “Now, in the last year or so, the pendulum has suddenly swung all the way the other way,” says David Yaden, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who studies the subjective effects of psychedelics.
But Yaden believes the field is in danger of being overcorrected. In a new opinion article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Yaden – along with his co-authors Roland Griffiths and James Potash, two experts in psychedelics and psychiatry respectively – argues that unless we tread carefully, psychedelic research could end up back where it started: treated with deep suspicion , if not completely forbidden . “I don’t want to be a wet blanket,” says Yaden. “I think there is real cause for excitement. But I think it’s a really important message to spread.”
To track the potential future of psychedelics, Yaden, Griffiths, and Potash referenced a model called the Gartner Hype Cycle, which can be used to characterize the trend cycle of emerging technologies like virtual reality or 4D printing. The pattern has gone something like this: Banned for decades, psychedelics have re-emerged from the underground fringe communities and into the labs in recent years as potentially revolutionary treatments for mental illness. Then, in 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted psilocybin “breakthrough therapy” designation for depression, giving a treatment the fastest possible path to approval. Media pounced on it and startups sprung up, followed by an obsessive patenting of psychedelic compounds.
But what began as a welcome glimmer of hope for new ways to treat mental illness (which psychedelics are irrefutable, even if study results have been modest so far) has turned into actual misinformation, Yaden argues. Claims have surfaced ranging from the baseless to the outlandish: psychedelics could “cure” mental illness, solve massive social problems, and create a “psychedelic utopia.” We are in the midst of what Yaden and his co-authors call the psychedelic hype bubble. And they argue that scientists should be the ones to pop it.