Virtual Reality and Psychedelics are Opening New Pathways to Treating Mental Health Disorders

Virtual reality and psychedelics are paving new paths for treating mental health. 

Virtual Reality and Psychedelics are Opening New Pathways to Treating Mental Health Disorders


For much of history the discussion of mental health was considered taboo. People simply “weren’t right,” or, in a mystical-psychological take, they might be “touched by spirit.” Indeed, correlation between psychotic states and religious revelation is longstanding. Speculation of the eternal aside, one in four people are expected to suffer from mental health issues every year. An evolving discussion over what that entails and how to treat the range of issues implicated is unavoidable.

Two interventions—one just reaching the mainstream, the other quite old—share a common bond in altering the way we experience reality. Both are showing potentially game-changing results in treatment, which should open the doors to more research. 

Throughout the twentieth century mental health had two complementary treatments: talk therapy and pharmaceuticals. Both have had their victories and seen there share of disasters, especially when the latter is implemented to avoid the rigors of the former. Clinical psychology professor Daniel Freeman and his brother, the writer Jason Freeman, argue that talking does not match the experience of problem-solving in the real world: 

Counselling can be effective to a degree, but the most powerful changes happen when individuals are presented with the situations that cause them distress and directly learn how to think, feel, and behave more constructively. That means getting out of the consulting room and into the real world, with the therapist acting much more like a personal trainer or leadership coach.

Enter virtual reality. One reason talk therapy is limited is time, while pharmaceutical intervention, while successful in treating certain disorders, also has numerous side effects, including sleep disruption, gastrointestinal distress, emotional seesawing, sexual dysfunction, among others. Strapping on a headset and opening an app that places the participant in a crowded mall (agoraphobia) or on top of a skyscraper (acrophobia) could help rewire their phobias. 

Recently I strapped into virtual reality for the second time—the first was a cheap cardboard model that was not all-consuming—and can attest to its overwhelming neurological presence. Even while sitting on the patio of a Santa Monica restaurant I was completely immersed in the robo-technic world of electronic dance music and Anonymous-style lingo of this particular app. In the panoramic virtual world your brain has no choice but to treat it as real regardless of its illusory nature—much the same can be said of life itself in this regard. We all see through the lenses of our illusions. 

A second bonus, according to the Freeman brothers, is that, as in dreams, virtual reality is a “safe space” for us to engage in problem solving that we’d normally be reluctant to attempt “out there.” 

Understandably, the thought of facing a difficult situation — even as part of a course of therapy — can be off-putting for many people. But because VR is not real that reticence tends to disappear. We’ll do things in VR that we’d be reluctant to try in normal life.

Lessons learned in the unreal world are transferrable, giving VR its therapeutic power. So far the 285 studies published on virtual reality and mental health are encouraging. Sufferers of social anxiety, PTSD, and phobias are finding success. The brothers speculate that other problems, such as depression, eating disorders, and alcoholism, might also be treated in the virtual world. They even foresee VR as being a diagnostic tool, cheaper and more accessible than fMRI machines and talk therapy sessions. 

While enthusiastic, the brothers recognize that we’re at an early stage. We should always proceed with caution when considering any treatment to be a silver bullet. Yet the original virtual reality—psychedelics—keeps emerging in new research as a means for treating mental health. While this course of treatment has its own challenges—legality, dosages, individual neurochemistry—the results are favorable. 

Phobias and disorders are one thing, but psychosis and schizophrenia fall into different categories. Many of us suffer the consequences of trauma and stress yet are still able to function in society. Beyond that an entire range of mental health issues ravage an under-discussed population. 

Psychedelics were thrown into Nixon’s racist power grab in the early seventies, causing a wide range of substances to be taken off the market for research. Enthusiasts and scientists remained on-guard for decades, but the last few years have offered a renaissance in psychedelic research, with positive results in anxiety, nicotine addiction, and depression. As Taylor Beck reports, this has led to even more profound research: 

By creating a brief bout of psychosis in a healthy brain, as indigenous healers have for millennia, scientists are seeking new ways to study—and perhaps treat—mental illness.

Identifying the neurological basis of symptoms is necessary in treating the ailment. Since disorders like schizophrenia are comprised of a number of symptoms, targeting each one pharmacologically might yield better results than trying to treat the disorder as a whole.

Beck notes that a range of psychedelics, including psilocybin, mescaline, and LSD all act on serotonin, which is critical in mood regulation. Neuropharmacologist Mitul Mehta believes the exact reason one hallucinates—be it schizophrenia, mania, or Parkinson’s—might not be pertinent if you can target the hallucinatory act itself, giving psychedelics a potentially broad range of disorders to work on. 

Which is what a Swiss study Beck reports on discovered. Inducing temporary psychosis and hallucinations with psilocybin in thirty-six people, researchers attempted to block the “deluge of serotonin activation” that occurs in hallucinations. Participants were given the antipsychedelic drugs buspirone and ergotamine to accomplish just that. In this case psilocybin is not treating schizophrenia, but being used to mimic it to discover the efficacy of serotonin-blocking substances. 

Buspirone restrained the hallucinations, though it didn't prevent the “anxious sense of ego dissolution or fear of going insane” sometimes associated with psychedelics. In terms of this research, though, it’s a win, with psilocybin working to mimic psychosis in the brains of healthy participants. This itself is progress in understanding such disorders, considering so much of what we’ve learned in the last few centuries was only discovered through the brains of those already afflicted. 

Mental health problems are chronic. Causes, triggers, and reasons are too long for any singular substance or virtual reality to address. But these new approaches should be welcomed by mental health specialists, empowering them with noninvasive (or controllably invasive) means of better understanding what’s going on inside of their patients’ heads. We know it’s all chemistry, and no chemical should be denied its therapeutic potential. 

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Derek's next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/4/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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U.S. Navy ships

Credit: Getty Images
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Meet Dr. Jennifer Doudna: she's leading the biotech revolution

She helped create CRISPR, a gene-editing technology that is changing the way we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

Courtesy of Jennifer Doudna
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

Last year, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier became the first all-woman team to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work developing CRISPR-Cas9, the gene-editing technology. The technology was invented in 2012 — and nine years later, it's truly revolutionizing how we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

CRISPR allows scientists to alter DNA by using proteins that are naturally found in bacteria. They use these proteins, called Cas9, to naturally fend off viruses, destroying the virus' DNA and cutting it out of their genes. CRISPR allows scientists to co-opt this function, redirecting the proteins toward disease-causing mutations in our DNA.

So far, gene-editing technology is showing promise in treating sickle cell disease and genetic blindness — and it could eventually be used to treat all sorts of genetic diseases, from cancer to Huntington's Disease.

The biotech revolution is just getting started — and CRISPR is leading the charge. We talked with Doudna about what we can expect from genetic engineering in the future.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Freethink: You've said that your journey to becoming a scientist had humble beginnings — in your teenage bedroom when you discovered The Double Helix by Jim Watson. Back then, there weren't a lot of women scientists — what was your breakthrough moment in realizing you could pursue this as a career?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a moment that I often think back to from high school in Hilo, Hawaii, when I first heard the word "biochemistry." A researcher from the UH Cancer Center on Oahu came and gave a talk on her work studying cancer cells.

I didn't understand much of her talk, but it still made a huge impact on me. You didn't see professional women scientists in popular culture at the time, and it really opened my eyes to new possibilities. She was very impressive.

I remember thinking right then that I wanted to do what she does, and that's what set me off on the journey that became my career in science.

CRISPR 101: Curing Sickle Cell, Growing Organs, Mosquito Makeovers | Jennifer Doudna | Big Think www.youtube.com

Freethink: The term "CRISPR" is everywhere in the media these days but it's a really complicated tool to describe. What is the one thing that you wish people understood about CRISPR that they usually get wrong?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: People should know that CRISPR technology has revolutionized scientific research and will make a positive difference to their lives.

Researchers are gaining incredible new understanding of the nature of disease, evolution, and are developing CRISPR-based strategies to tackle our greatest health, food, and sustainability challenges.

Freethink: You previously wrote in Wired that this year, 2021, is going to be a big year for CRISPR. What exciting new developments should we be on the lookout for?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were multiple teams around the world, including my lab and colleagues at the Innovative Genomics Institute, working on developing CRISPR-based diagnostics.

"Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time."
DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

When the pandemic hit, we pivoted our work to focus these tools on SARS-CoV-2. The benefit of these new diagnostics is that they're fast, cheap, can be done anywhere without the need for a lab, and they can be quickly modified to detect different pathogens. I'm excited about the future of diagnostics, and not just for pandemics.

We'll also be seeing more CRISPR applications in agriculture to help combat hunger, reduce the need for toxic pesticides and fertilizers, fight plant diseases and help crops adapt to a changing climate.

Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time.

Freethink: Curing genetic diseases isn't a pipedream anymore, but there are still some hurdles to cross before we're able to say for certain that we can do this. What are those hurdles and how close do you think we are to crossing them?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There are people today, like Victoria Gray, who have been successfully treated for sickle cell disease. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are absolutely still many hurdles. We don't currently have ways to deliver genome-editing enzymes to all types of tissues, but delivery is a hot area of research for this very reason.

We also need to continue improving on the first wave of CRISPR therapies, as well as making them more affordable and accessible.

Freethink: Another big challenge is making this technology widely available to everyone and not just the really wealthy. You've previously said that this challenge starts with the scientists.

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: A sickle cell disease cure that is 100 percent effective but can't be accessed by most of the people in need is not really a full cure.

This is one of the insights that led me to found the Innovative Genomics Institute back in 2014. It's not enough to develop a therapy, prove that it works, and move on. You have to develop a therapy that actually meets the real-world need.

Too often, scientists don't fully incorporate issues of equity and accessibility into their research, and the incentives of the pharmaceutical industry tend to run in the opposite direction. If the world needs affordable therapy, you have to work toward that goal from the beginning.

Freethink: You've expressed some concern about the ethics of using CRISPR. Do you think there is a meaningful difference between enhancing human abilities — for example, using gene therapy to become stronger or more intelligent — versus correcting deficiencies, like Type 1 diabetes or Huntington's?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't.

There's always a gray area when it comes to complex ethical issues like this, and our thinking on this is undoubtedly going to evolve over time.

What we need is to find an appropriate balance between preventing misuse and promoting beneficial innovation.

Freethink: What if it turns out that being physically stronger helps you live a longer life — if that's the case, are there some ways of improving health that we should simply rule out?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The concept of improving the "healthspan" of individuals is an area of considerable interest. Eliminating neurodegenerative disease will not only massively reduce suffering around the world, but it will also meaningfully increase the healthy years for millions of individuals.

"There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't."
DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

There will also be knock-on effects, such as increased economic output, but also increased impact on the planet.

When you think about increasing lifespans just so certain people can live longer, then not only do those knock-on effects become more central, you also have to ask who is benefiting and who isn't? Is it possible to develop this technology so the benefits are shared equitably? Is it environmentally sustainable to go down this road?

Freethink: Where do you see it going from here?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The bio revolution will allow us to create breakthroughs in treating not just a few but whole classes of previously unaddressed genetic diseases.

We're also likely to see genome editing play a role not just in climate adaptation, but in climate change solutions as well. There will be challenges along the way both expected and unexpected, but also great leaps in progress and benefits that will move society forward. It's an exciting time to be a scientist.

Freethink: If you had to guess, what is the first disease you think we are most likely to cure, in the real world, with CRISPR?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Because of the progress that has already been made, sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia are likely to be the first diseases with a CRISPR cure, but we're closely following the developments of other CRISPR clinical trials for types of cancer, a form of congenital blindness, chronic infection, and some rare genetic disorders.

The pace of clinical trials is picking up, and the list will be longer next year.

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