Psilocybin Being Examined for Psychotherapeutic Use

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez from Unsplash

Researchers from the University of Washington have been working on answering the question of whether or not psilocybin can help relieve the mental health burden being carried by clinicians who have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Psilocybin is a psychedelic drug that is being tested alongside psychotherapy (the treatment of mental disorders by psychological, rather than medical, means).

UW physician Anthony Back is leading the trial and said that it may start within a month. He also stated that healthcare workers who are treating COVID-19 patients are being hit with many different stressors, such as grief from watching people dying painfully in front of them, feeling like they didn’t do everything they could, or dealing with angry or violent patients and worrisome families who can’t visit their loved ones.

There are many trials going on now to see if psilocybin can be used to treat depression, but the emotions these workers are facing can be much different than that. Along with depression, they are experiencing things such as PTSD, anxiety, and burnout.

According to Dr. Back, this trial is the first to test psilocybin on healthcare professionals. The study will be conducted on 30 clinicians with depression, anxiety, and a state of existential distress. This trial will also include a psychotherapy component, a treatment series developed with the Toronto-based company Cybin, who is one of the trial’s funders. Additional funders of the trial include the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation, the Rita & Alex Hillman Foundation, and the RiverStyx Foundation.

Neither UW nor Dr. Back have a financial relationship with Cybin or any other psychedelic companies, other than through their support of the trial.

After the clinicians receive two sessions of psychotherapy, 15 of them will receive a single dose of psilocybin, while the other 15 will receive a placebo. This is then followed up with three “integration sessions.”

A month after they received the psilocybin or placebo, the participants will be evaluated for anxiety, depression, existential stress, burnout, PTSD, and other mental health issues. Then they will be unblinded and the drug will be made available on an open-label basis to participants from the placebo group.

According to Dr. Back, psychedelics can give your brain a kind of reset. He says that the ruminative cycle (the patterns of thinking) that goes round and round in your head gets disrupted, and people are given a chance to see what it’s like without that.

A similar method is behind a growing number of clinical trials which are testing psilocybin in a wide range of conditions like migraines and opioid use disorder. One of the largest trials is being run by U.K.-based Compass Pathways to test the drug’s effect on depression. Early-phase data released in November yielded mixed results. Participants with the highest dose had decreased depression rates when compared to the participants with a lower dosage, but the higher dose also occasionally came with adverse side effects such as suicidal ideation.

They are now planning a larger trial that may be able to assess if the effect on depression from the first smaller trial is repeatable. Last fall, Compass raised $127 million in a public offering, which was only part of a growing investment. In 2021, from January to April, psychedelic startups brought in $329 million in venture funding.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved the UW trial in an investigational new drug application approval letter, according to a Cybin statement posted near the end of 2021.

Professionals at CaaMTech, a Woodinville-based company, are researching new psychedelics. In November, CaaMTech announced that they will be collaborating with the University of Wyoming to test their compounds on laboratory animals. CaaMTech also recently raised $22 million to fund this research.

I think that these trials are necessary to help healthcare professionals combat an overwhelming amount of stress, depression, anxiety, and PTSD, from the things that they see every day that I can only imagine. These trials and studies will help healthcare workers continue to do the amazing work that they do with less to hold upon their shoulders. I will certainly be keeping up with the upcoming news about these trials and studies.