By Rowenna Hoskin | Science Editor
The psychedelic drug dimethyltryptamine (DMT) has been authorized to be used for the first clinical trial to treat depression.
The drug, named the “spirit molecule” for its powerful hallucinogenic trips, is to be given to healthy individuals first. A second trial is then expected to take place which will see patients with depression given DMT alongside psychotherapy.
Carol Routledge, the chief scientific and medical officer at Small Pharma, the company running the trial in collaboration with Imperial College London explains:
“The psychedelic drug breaks up all of the ruminative thought processes in your brain – it literally undoes what has been done by either the stress you’ve been through or the depressive thoughts you have – and hugely increases the making of new connections.
“Then the [psychotherapy] session afterwards is the letting-things-settle piece of things – it helps you to make sense of those thoughts and puts you back on the right track. We think this could be a treatment for a number of depressive disorders besides major depression, including PTSD, treatment-resistant depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and possibly some types of substance abuse.”
DMT is a natural psychedelic, found in several plants. It is one of the active ingredients in ayahuasca – a bitter drink consumed during shamanistic rituals in South America and other places. It is also available as a street drug in the UK, a classified A substance which has a maximum penalty of seven years in jail for possession and life imprisonment for supply.
The initial trial aims to establish the lowest dose of DMT eliciting a psychedelic experience, involving 32 healthy volunteers, who have never previously taken a psychedelic drug (including ecstasy or ketamine). The following trial will have 36 patients with clinical depression.
The treatment will be modelled on studies of psilocybin – the psychedelic ingredient in magic mushrooms – in depression. Patients are brought into a clinic, where a “setting” session takes place involving a clinician who primes them to open their mind to the drug and ensures they are comfortable. Then they are administered the drug, and once the psychedelic experience ends, patients immediately undergo a psychotherapy session.
The difference between DMT and psilocybin is that the former creates a much faster and intense experience, but a shorter one. “Whereas a psilocybin session takes all day – and if you’re doing two or even more of those, that’s a large time commitment – a DMT session, all in, will probably take under two hours,” said Peter Rands, Small Pharma’s CEO.
“We expect DMT to be rapid-acting, equivalent or perhaps even better than psilocybin, so within hours of a session you will get rapid relief [from your depression]. We also expect the effect to be sustained over a similar time period.”
With over 264 million individuals globally experiencing depression, and the added trauma that COVID-19 has created, this trial could be ground-breaking. Depression can be deadly, and many individuals find medication to be numbing as opposed a cure. DMT treatment could be this cure, leaving those suffering with severe depression a way to heal.
Science and Technology Rowenna Hoskin