Roland Griffiths, Tim Ferriss | The Future and Science of Psychedelics | SXSW 2018

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Intro
  • This is a conversation between Tim and Roland at the 2018 SXSW Conference
  • Roland Griffiths Ph.D., is a professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Neurosciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
  • His principal research focus has been on the behavioral and subjective effects of mood-altering drugs.
  • Check out these other Podcast Notes from Roland’s appearance on the Found My Fitness Podcast
    • For more on psychedelics, check out these Podcast Notes from Michael Pollan’s appearance on The Tim Ferriss Show
Caffeine
  • Roland has researched a variety of compounds in his lab, including caffeine
  • Caffeine is the most widely used mood altering drug in the world
    • 80-90% of the world’s population consumes caffeine
    • “It’s so embedded in our culture, that it almost becomes invisible with respect to the fact that it’s enormously effective at generating daily self administration”
  • Caffeine is incredibly effective at even very low doses
    • A 6 oz. cup of coffee delivers about 100 mg of caffeine
    • You can often detect levels of caffeine at 10 mg and below in subjects, even as low as 2 mg
  • “By and large it’s a relatively safe compound”
Psychedelic Research
  • Roland has been doing research on mood altering drugs at Johns Hopkins for 45 years
  • 25 years ago, he started a meditation practice, which got him interested in altered states of consciousness and spiritual experiences
  • At this point he became quite acquainted with the older research on psychedelics from the 1950s and 1960s, which seemed to point to the fact that psychedelics can create experiences that very much look like naturally occurring spiritual experiences
    • At this point , he decided to do more research on psilocybin after getting approval from the FDA in the year 2000
      • Psilocybin is the psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms
    • This was the first time a protocol like this had been approved in many decades
  • In his first study…
    • Participants took a capsule of synthesized psilocybin (at a dose of 30 mg per 70 kg of body weight – this is about 5 grams of dry magic mushrooms)
      • They put on eye shades and headphones, and listen to music
      • They’re asked to direct their attention inwards
      • Trip sitters were there to watch over participants
    • One of the most interesting results of the study – there are characteristic features that can emerge from these conditions, that resemble naturally occurring spiritual experiences reported by people in religious circles over many generations
    • 2 months after the experience, participants frequently said it was among the most personally meaningful experiences of their lifetime
      • 30% said it was the single most meaningful experience in their entire life
    • What were these mystical experiences like? What features do they have?
      • One core feature – a sense of oneness, interconnectedness of all people and things
      • Also, a sense of sacredness, accompanied by feelings of happiness and peace
      • Transcendence of time and space can also occur
    • People attribute to the experience enduring positive changes to their mood and behavior
The Many Psychedelic Compounds
  • The best known psychedelics include psilocybin (found in certain mushrooms), mescalin (found in the peyote cactus), and DMT which is used widely in South America in Ahyahuasca
    • These are all natural compounds
    • Use of these compounds dates back thousands of years – they were often used for religious and haling purposes
  • Another classical psychedelic – LSD
    • This is synthesized
  • Roland’s research has focused mainly on psilocybin
  • All these compounds have somewhat different pharmacologies, hit different receptors in the brain, have different durations of action, and have different onset times, but by and large they’re more similar than different
    • They all bind to 5- HT 2a receptor (aka serotonin 2a receptor) in the brain
  • These compounds cause changes in visualization, hearing, perception and elicit changes in consciousness sometimes seen in dream states, as well as mystical experiences
  • The term psychedelic literally means “mind-manifesting”
Neuroscience and The Default Mode Network (DMN)
  • We know psychedelics bind to the serotonin 2a receptor, and then kick off a range of downstream effects
  • Psychedelics reduce activity in the default mode network
    • Meditation has also been found to do the same
  • What does the DMN do?
    • It’s associated with rumination and the idea we have of being “a self”
    • This is where the brain goes when it’s not busy – to worry, daydream, ruminate etc.
    • Activity in the DMN is upregulated in depressed people
  • Check out this image
    • This shows the interconnectedness of different brain regions after dosing with a a psychedelic
    • “There are emergent connections being made, where all kinds of information is being passed back and forth” – after the drug is eliminated from the system, these effects subside
  • In a way, a psychedelic experience is like resetting a computer
    • In a literal sense, a rewiring of the brain is taking place
  • The experiences someone has on these compounds, is very much determined by set and setting, as well as intention
The Therapeutic Applications of Psychedelics
  • Roland has done psychedelic studies in 3 areas, using them to treat:
    • Existential distress in cancer patients – psychedelics have been found to greatly decrease their “end of life anxiety” in most volunteers
    • Treatment resistant depression
      • Tim actually helped fund this research
      • Antidepressants just aren’t very effective – they can work, but many people take them and are still depressed
    • Smoking Addiction
What are some potential negative side effects of psychedelics, what are some risks?
  • For Roland’s studies, he screens potential volunteers very very carefully
    • People with, or with a family history of a psychotic illness (schizophrenia, bipolar disorder etc.) are ruled out
    • He estimates he is probably more cautious than he needs to be
  • Almost everyone who has participated in one of Roland’s studies, has said their well-being and life satisfaction has increased after the experience
  • Roland created a poll online, asking people to describe their worst psychedelic experiences
    • 11% of people put themselves at risk for physical harm
    • 3% ended up in an ER
    • 3% said they participated in violent/dangerous behavior
    • 8% said their well being or life satisfaction as a consequence of that experience was decreased
    • Of people who had the experience over a year ago
      • 10% said they had enduring psychological problems
      • 8% had sought out professional treatment
  • People with a family history of schizophrenia seemed to be especially prone to negative side effects like the above
How do the prep sessions work for Roland’s psychedelic studies?
  • He has participants spend about 8 hours in preparation (usually two four hour meetings – this will be done in the session room, so patients are familiar with the environment)
    • The participant will meet with the two guides/trip sitters and do a “life review”
      • Relationship history, what meaning the participants are searching for in life, what kind of work they do, issues growing up etc.
    • It’s important to know how they’re “showing up” to the session, and what issues might be currently going on in their lives
    • The goal is to establish a sense of trust
      • “With a high dose of psilocybin, there has to be a certain level of surrender and trust”
  • Participants rehearse the process of having their guides support them, if they experience any sort of fear/anxiety during the trip
    • Roland tells his patients, if anxiety/fear arise …
      • Give voice to it – this is enough of a reminder, usually, for people not to mentally run away, but rather to be curious and interested in the fear that’s arising
      • Pay attention and be interested in it
      • “There’s nothing in consciousness than can hurt you” – The only problems occur when you believe things which are untrue, to be true
        • “Nothing in your consciousness can hurt you, but it can sometimes give the appearance of being very threatening”
        • If you encounter something scary, identify the object of consciousness as just that – don’t run from it
        • Go into the negative thoughts and emotions that arise – investigate them
What does the day of the session look like?
  • Participants usually come in around 8:30am
  • They are advised to have a small breakfast, and to take their normal amount of caffeine
  • Before taking the psilocybin, patients will have their baseline blood pressure readings taken
  • With the psilocybin capsule, participants take 6 oz of water
  • The guide will then sit down with the volunteer, and have them look through art books or nature paintings
    • The goal is to get them out of the “thinking mind” and into a a “present mind”
  • Not long after this, the participant is encouraged to put on their eye shades, and lay down
  • The onset of psilocybin effects, can occur as quickly as 20 minutes
    • It reaches peak effects after 2-3 hours, and then starts tapering off
    • By 4pm, people are usually back to baseline
  • The voluneer is picked up by a friend or spouse
Why was psychedelic research halted in the 1950s and 1960s?
  • In short, there was a sense of anti-establishment fever associated with psychedelic users
  • There was a belief that the risks involved with psychedelics, didn’t outweigh the potential benefits
    • This was a result of over zealous media coverage
  • At one point, all research with on psychedelic compounds was halted
  • “I think it was a case of very bad PR that shut things down”
Psychedelics Become a Schedule 1 Compound
  • After research was halted,  psychedelics became a Schedule 1 compound
  • What are the criteria for being a Schedule I compound?
    • It has to be a drug of abuse
    • It has to have no medical application
    • Examples – certain opiates, heroin
What has kept Roland going for so long, when there’s so many obstacles to doing legal psychedelic research?
  • “It’s the most interesting game in town”
  • “I could not think of something more important and interesting that I could spend my time on. This is a window into the nature of consciousness”
  • “Psychedelics are a convergent methodology to meditation, for really investigating and understanding the nature of the mind, and what could be more interesting that that”
  • Tim – “You could make the argument that our entire experience of life, is a function of mind”
Roland is currently recruiting for a number of studies
  • The study for the treatment of depression with psilocybin is ongoing
    • However, they can only admit people to the study who are within commuting distance of Johns Hopkins (there are a total of 13 sessions)
    • It’s open to anyone 21-75 years old, with a current episode of clinical depression
    • However, you cannot currently be on any SSRIs, or antidepressants
Wrapping Up
  • “It very unusual, you find something like this, where so little. does so much” – Tim
  • Tim has decided to commit $1 million of his own money over the next few years to psychedelic research
  • To support this research yourself, check out Tim.blog/science
Quotes
  • “May you remain aware of awareness”
    • We often get so lost in our stories, that we forget this
  • “The true method of knowledge, is experiment”
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