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The world's first psilocybin research center is opening in Jamaica
FieldTrip is advancing the realm of clinical psychedelic testing.
- FieldTrip Ventures is opening the world's first psilocybin research center at the University of the West Indies.
- More research on magic mushrooms follows mounting evidence of the efficacy of ketamine and MDMA.
- Ronan Levy of FieldTrip believes psychedelics could help treat a wide range of mental health conditions.
When I noticed articles floating around about the opening of the world's first psilocybin research center, I figured they were from satire websites. Sure, the case for therapeutic psychedelics is growing: ketamine is the first psychedelic to be legally prescribed for depression in America; MAPS is entering phase 3 trials for MDMA for the treatment of PTSD; iboga and ayahausca are used in addiction treatment in other nations. And, of course, John Hopkins announced the opening of the first psychedelic research center last month.
But a center focused solely on. . . magic mushrooms?
Thank Toronto-based FieldTrip Ventures for that. Ronan Levy is one of the founders. Having cut his teeth in the Canadian medical marijuana business, I was excited to chat with him about this exciting new project (you can hear our full conversation here). The '60s might have been the golden era of psychedelic experimentation, but we are entering a new phase of clinical research to discover just how effective they are for treating a range of mental health conditions.
Given the results this far, a new era has begun.
Tim Ferriss & Michael Pollan Journey into Psychedelics | SXSW LIVE STUDIO
Derek: On FieldTrip's website, it says the mission is "to heal the sick and better the well." Let's start with the healing.
Ronan: The evidence suggests that psychedelics, broadly speaking, can help treat a number of mental health conditions, ranging from depression to anxiety to OCD to addiction. There are studies now looking at anorexia and eating disorders as well. Not all of them have been conducted at clinical-trial levels, but there's definitely been trials on a small scale for all of those conditions. Psilocybin, in particular, has been studied for use in the treatment of depression as well as addiction. I think almost any mental health condition may benefit from psilocybin and other psychedelics. That seems to be where the evidence is leading.
Derek: Their illegality is especially frustrating considering the efficacy rates of SSRIs. What would you say to someone who is thinking about trying psychedelics but is still on other medication?
Ronan: We don't advocate that anybody attempt to undertake a psychedelic experience on their own. There is evidence to suggest that these molecules can be very effective in the context of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. It's not as well understood outside of that. The effects are unknown in terms of "Will it help?" Many people anecdotally say it absolutely does, but then there's broader concerns of whether you're not carefully considering what other medications or supplements you're using. We would say do it under the context of a medical professional, but presently there are no medical professionals licensed to actually provide psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. At this point, we don't advocate that people try this out on their own until it's better understood.
Derek: Michael Pollan writes extensively about the need for a guide, someone leading you through the experience.
Ronan: That's where the evidence is and we'll follow the evidence. That certainly doesn't mean that it doesn't merit exploring the potential of psychedelics outside of the context of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. However, there's no evidence on that yet right now, so we remain neutral.
On site are representatives Johnathan Werynski (left) and Ronan Levy from CanvasRX.
Photo by Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Derek: Understood. I appreciate your focus on being evidence-based. I'm also an advocate for cannabis. One thing that has perturbed me has been the CBD explosion, when the efficacy rate in all the studies that I've read is4 00 milligrams and above, yet coffee shops sell five milligrams for $8. Do you foresee any dangers of this happening with psychedelics?
Ronan: There is potential danger. They're powerful molecules. They're psychoactive and psychotropic. Anytime you're affecting brain chemistry merits caution and prudence. Do I foresee a future where they're being added to coffee? Not likely, no. Just like you're not going to see THC being added to coffee, at least in a legal context. There are risks that bad actors or people really interested in making a buck create products that aren't necessarily safe, which lead to bad outcomes, which may lead to political backlash. Right now it seems there's a lot of momentum in favor of psychedelics, and we want to keep that momentum. The best way to do that is to make sure to advance in a very thoughtful way.
Derek: You might be wrong on one of those counts. Here in Los Angeles, the first sanctioned cannabis cafe just opened.
Ronan: That's fair. I'm not familiar. It seems that the FDA's stated position is still that CBD is not permitted in any food product. I assume the same applies on the federal perspective on THC. Hopefully, whoever's opening that cafe is doing it really thoughtfully. No one needs a bad experience.
Derek: Speaking of cannabis, you started your work with Grassfed Ventures. Was cannabis your gateway drug into psychedelics?
Ronan: Even before Grassfed Ventures, four of the five founders of FieldTrip had started two sister companies, Canadian Cannabis Clinics and CanvasRX. Canadian Cannabis Clinics is the largest network of specialized medical clinics in Canada. That's where we got our experience with alternative medications or plant-based medications.
We're open-minded, but I'd say a little bit skeptical as to the therapeutic applications of cannabis when we first started. All of us were quite moved emotionally and quite convinced logically and intuitively that cannabis is a very effective medicine for a lot of people in the therapeutic applications. When we left to start the next thing, we became aware of psychedelics and saw the parallels between cannabis and psychedelics in terms of the evidence supporting therapeutic use, which is actually greater with psychedelics than there has been for cannabis. So yes, cannabis was our gateway into psychedelics.
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Derek: You're opening the first psilocybin research center in Jamaica at the University of the West Indies, which I find fascinating and important. How did you choose that location? Can you talk about the function of the center?
Ronan: When we became aware of the opportunity around psychedelics in terms of its therapeutic value, we ran into the challenge that anybody looking at the space runs into, which is how to build a business in an illegal industry. We're not interested in doing anything illegal. As we did our homework, we realized that there are a few jurisdictions around the world in which psilocybin mushrooms are legal. Jamaica is one of those places. Through our work in the cannabis industry, we had great contacts down there. We had very constructive conversations and became aware that there's openness to it. It made sense to start with Jamaica.
So we are opening the world's first legal research and cultivation facility focused on psilocybin-producing mushrooms in conjunction with the University of the West Indies. We have the expressed support of various ministers and various levels of government to do this work. The focus of the research facility is to essentially do a lot of the work that's been done on cannabis over the last 10 years: focus on genetics, strain development, and understand the molecular chemistry of psilocybin mushrooms. We want to understand what other molecules are of interest, which may have therapeutic effects, and isolate them, as well as develop the standards for testing for all of these things. Really, doing anything you think may have been relevant to the development of the cannabis industry.
Derek: Why did you specifically choose mushrooms?
Ronan: The business rationale is that there's a lot of white space to be studied and lots of IP to be developed. From a societal perspective, the embrace of psilocybin-producing mushrooms is going to be much easier than with the more robust experiences that you have with DMT or ayahuasca. Our hope for the facility in Jamaica is that we will eventually expand into other plant-based psychedelics, but there's enough work to be done on psilocybin-producing mushrooms, all 200 or so genetic strains.
Roger Lopez, Shaman of a Shipibo community in the Amazon jungle, conduct a session of Ayahuasca.
Photo credit: Fotoholica Press/LightRocket via Getty Images
Derek: When you talk about IP and moving into pharmaceuticals, are there any dangers that you foresee anyone being disturbed by that sort of approach to what some people consider sacred medicine?
Ronan: It's something we're certainly conscious and aware of. I don't anticipate it being an issue. Our perspective is we have no interest in diminishing the heritage or sacred beliefs of any culture. But we do believe that a consciously-operated, for-profit entity is the best way to help make the therapeutic value of psychedelic molecules available to the greatest number of people. We're trying to find the appropriate balance between cultural sensitivity and good business practices.
Derek: I originally discovered mushrooms and other psychedelics in the early nineties. It was in an environment and a community that talked about Terence McKenna and the hero's dose. In the last few years, microdosing has become very popular. I was skeptical at first, but then came to the conclusion that dosage matters and whatever helps is important.
Ronan: It hasn't been studied in depth and therefore the effects, whether it's effective or not, is not well understood. More importantly, if people perceive they're being helped then they are being helped. Whether it's the pharmacology involved in the microdosing or just the placebo effect is of less importance in my mind. The bigger concern is that the effects of long-term use of psilocybin at microdosing levels isn't well understood, so there's potential health consequences around it. A couple of months ago, the first observational study on microdosing came out and it seems very promising, but I think more research needs to be done.
Derek: Have you envisioned any sort of rollout of training courses that would be developed as the research evolves?
Ronan: Absolutely. With clinical trials going on right now, by and large the protocols that they're using are very labor- and time-intensive on part of a psychotherapist. It makes sense because they want to achieve the greatest potential results. There's a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of optimizing delivery of these services and minimize the amount of psychotherapist time that needs to be involved to deliver as good if not better outcomes than currently prescribed by the protocols.
Training people is going to be essential as you scale this, but there's not a whole lot of evidence on what to base training on outside of what exists in the current clinical trials. You can see really effective training materials and courses coming out because there hasn't been a lot of experimentation in terms of how the psychotherapy is being delivered. There are protocols that are being used right now similar to the ones that were developed in the fifties and sixties, which haven't been studied in depth as to whether the amount of psychotherapy work involved is necessary.
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While legalization has benefits, a new study suggests it may have one big drawback.
- A new study finds that rates of marijuana use and addiction have gone up in states that have recently legalized the drug.
- The problem was most severe for those over age of 26, with cases of addiction rising by a third.
- The findings complicate the debate around legalization.
Cannabis Use Disorder, is that when you get so high you can’t figure out how to smoke anymore?
Cannabis use disorder, also known as CUD or cannabis/marijuana addiction, is a psychological disorder described in DSM 5 as "the continued use of cannabis despite clinically significant impairment." This includes people being unable to cut down on their usage despite wanting to, those who often use it despite finding it severely impairs their ability to function, or those who are putting themselves in danger to secure access to the drug.
While an understanding that marijuana can be addictive has existed for some time, and the image of the pothead who smokes so much they can hardly function is prevalent in our society, the effects of legalization on addiction rates have somehow gone understudied until now. Importantly, previous studies had failed to consider usage rates amongst populations over the age of 25.
In the new study, published in JAMA Psychiatry, focused on self-reported data on monthly drug use in four states where marijuana is now legal, Colorado, Washington, Alaska, and Oregon, from both before and after the drug was legalized in each state and compared it to others which have not yet legalized.
The data gave insights into the drug use habits of the respondents and specifically gave information about if they had smoked at all in the last month, the frequency of their drug use, and if they had ever had issues with how much they were using drugs.The researchers ultimately considered the responses of 505,796 individuals.
The increase in cannabis usage they found was considerable. The number of respondents over the age of 26 who claimed to have used the drug in the last month went up by 23% compared with their counterparts in states that have yet to legalize. Abuse of the drug by this group rose by 37%.
Teen usage rose by 25%, and addiction rates rose as well. This increase was small, though, and the authors have suggested it may be due to an unknown factor. The rate of usage or abuse for respondents between the ages of 18 and 25 did not increase at all.
After breaking the results down by demographics, the primary finding held; adults over the age of 26 are using marijuana more often when it is legalized, and they are starting to use it too much.
The grain of salt
As in any study where findings are self-reported, the exact numbers you see here should be taken with a grain of salt. They could be slightly higher or lower. As this study relies on people self-reporting their usage of a drug that is still illegal in many places, it is very possible that the apparent spike in addiction rates is caused by more accurate reporting, as people who live in an area where pot is still illegal may be less likely to report smoking it every day.
And it should be repeated a thousand times over that correlation and causation are not the same thing. There could be some unknown factor causing these increases in each case.
Despite these qualifications, the study is still useful in giving us a general sense of what may happen in states that have yet to legalize.
What does this mean for society and drug users?
While claims of "reefer madness" are greatly exaggerated, marijuana has several well established and thoroughly studied side effects. While occasional use isn't terribly harmful, addiction can be. Lead author Magdalena Cerdá of New York University explains in the study that heavy marijuana use is associated with "psychological and physical health concerns, lower educational attainment, decline in social class, unemployment, and motor vehicle crashes."
A substantial increase in the number of people who are addicted to the stuff will incur costs to society down the line.
Of course, a 37% increase in problematic usage means that the percentage of adults smoking too much went from .9% to 1.23% of the population responding to the survey. This makes it far less prevalent than issues with alcohol, which affected around 6% of all Americans in 2018.
Recently, Big Think's Philip Perry wrote a piece about how legalization could improve the health of millions by allowing the government to regulate the purity of commercially sold marijuana. This remains true. However, it must be weighed against the findings of this study, which suggests that at least some of these health gains will be wiped out by increased addiction rates.
What does this mean for legalization efforts?
The legalization steamroller will undoubtedly keep rolling along. While health concerns are one factor in the debate over marijuana, it is only one of many. In Illinois, where I live, weed will become legal on January 1st of 2020. The legalization campaign and legislation were more concerned with issues of social justice, the failures of prohibition, and finding a new source of tax revenue (since we're half broke) than with matters of potential addiction.
As Vox reports, the authors of the study aren't suggesting that legalization shouldn't take place; that is another, broader debate. They merely wish to present the fact that legalization has a particular side effect that we should be aware of.
While this study is unlikely to change anybody's stance on if weed should be legalized or not, it does show us a critical element to be considered when discussing drug policy. No drug is perfectly safe, and we have reason to believe that legalizing marijuana will mean that more people will have a hard time with it. Let's hope that legalization proponents keep that in mind as they rack up their victories.
For some reason, the bodies of deceased monks stay "fresh" for a long time.
It's definitely happening, and it's definitely weird. After the apparent death of some monks, their bodies remain in a meditating position without decaying for an extraordinary length of time, often as long as two or three weeks.
Tibetan Buddhists, who view death as a process rather than an event, might assert that the spirit has not yet finished with the physical body. For them, thukdam begins with a "clear light" meditation that allows the mind to gradually unspool, eventually dissipating into a state of universal consciousness no longer attached to the body. Only at that time is the body free to die.
Whether you believe this or not, it is a fascinating phenomenon: the fact remains that their bodies don't decompose like other bodies. (There have been a handful of other unexplained instances of delayed decomposition elsewhere in the world.)
The scientific inquiry into just what is going on with thukdam has attracted the attention and support of the Dalai Lama, the highest monk in Tibetan Buddhism. He has reportedly been looking for scientists to solve the riddle for about 20 years. He is a supporter of science, writing, "Buddhism and science are not conflicting perspectives on the world, but rather differing approaches to the same end: seeking the truth."
The most serious study of the phenomenon so far is being undertaken by The Thukdam Project of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Center for Healthy Minds. Neuroscientist Richard Davidson is one of the founders of the center and has published hundreds of articles about mindfulness.
Davidson first encountered thukdam after his Tibetan monk friend Geshe Lhundub Sopa died, officially on August 28, 2014. Davidson last saw him five days later: "There was absolutely no change. It was really quite remarkable."
The science so far
Credit: GrafiStart / Adobe Stock
The Thukdam Project published its first annual report this winter. It discussed a recent study in which electroencephalograms failed to detect any brain activity in 13 monks who had practiced thukdam and had been dead for at least 26 hours. Davidson was senior author of the study.
While some might be inclined to say, well, that's that, Davidson sees the research as just a first step on a longer road. Philosopher Evan Thompson, who is not involved in The Thukdam Project, tells Tricycle, "If the thinking was that thukdam is something we can measure in the brain, this study suggests that's not the right place to look."
In any event, the question remains: why are these apparently deceased monks so slow to begin decomposition? While environmental factors can slow or speed up the process a bit, usually decomposition begins about four minutes after death and becomes quite obvious over the course of the next day or so.
As the Dalai Lama said:
"What science finds to be nonexistent we should all accept as nonexistent, but what science merely does not find is a completely different matter. An example is consciousness itself. Although sentient beings, including humans, have experienced consciousness for centuries, we still do not know what consciousness actually is: its complete nature and how it functions."
As thukdam researchers continue to seek a signal of post-mortem consciousness of some sort, it's fair to ask what — and where — consciousness is in the first place. It is a question with which Big Think readers are familiar. We write about new theories all the time: consciousness happens on a quantum level; consciousness is everywhere.
So far, though, says Tibetan medical doctor Tawni Tidwell, also a Thukdam Project member, searches beyond the brain for signs of consciousness have gone nowhere. She is encouraged, however, that a number of Tibetan monks have come to the U.S. for medical knowledge that they can take home. When they arrive back in Tibet, she says, "It's not the Westerners who are doing the measuring and poking and prodding. It's the monastics who trained at Emory."
When Olympic athletes perform dazzling feats of athletic prowess, they are using the same principles of physics that gave birth to stars and planets.
- Much of the beauty of gymnastics comes from the physics principle called the conservation of angular momentum.
- Conservation of angular momentum tells us that when a spinning object changes how its matter is distributed, it changes its rate of spin.
- Conservation of angular momentum links the formation of planets in star-forming clouds to the beauty of a gymnast's spinning dismount from the uneven bars.
It is that time again when we watch in awe as Olympic athletes perform dazzling feats of athletic prowess. But as we stare in rapt attention at the speed, grace, and strength they exhibit, it is also a good time to pay attention to how they embody, literally, fundamental principles that shape the entire universe. Yes, I'm talking about physics. On our screens, these athletes are giving us lessons in the principles that giants like Isaac Newton struggled mightily to articulate.
Naturally, there are many Olympic events from which we could learn some basic principles of physics. Swimming shows us hydrodynamic drag. Boxing teaches us about force and impulse. (Ouch!) But today, we will focus on gymnastics and the cosmic importance of the conservation of angular momentum.
The conservation of angular momentum
Much of the beauty of gymnastics comes from the spins and flips athletes perform as they launch themselves into the air from the vault or uneven bars. These are all examples of rotations — and so much of the structure and history of the universe, from planets to galaxies, comes down to the physics of rotating objects. And so much of the physics of rotating objects comes down to the conservation of angular momentum.
Let's start with the conservation of regular or "linear" momentum. Momentum is the product of mass and velocity. Way back in the age of Galileo and Newton, physicists came to understand that in the interactions between bodies, the sum of their momentums had to be conserved (which really means "does not change"). This is a familiar idea to anyone who has played billiards: when a moving pool ball strikes a stationary one, the first ball stops while the second scoots away. The total momentum of the system (the mass times velocity of both balls taken together) is conserved, leaving the originally moving ball unmoving and the originally stationary ball carrying all the system's momentum.
Credit: Sergey Nivens and Victoria VIAR PRO via Adobe Stock
Rotating objects also obey a conservation law, but now it is not just the mass of an object that matters. The distribution of mass — that is, where the mass is located relative to the center of the rotation — is also a factor. Conservation of angular momentum tells us that if a spinning object is not subject to any forces, then any changes in how its matter is distributed must lead to a change in its rate of spin. Comparing the conservation of angular momentum to the conservation of linear momentum, the "distribution of mass" is analogous to mass, and the "rate of spin" is analogous to velocity.
There are many places in cosmic physics where this conservation of angular momentum is key. My favorite example is the formation of stars. Every star begins its life as a giant cloud of slowly spinning interstellar gas. The clouds are usually supported against their own gravitational weight by gas pressure, but sometimes a small nudge from, say, a passing supernova blast wave will force the cloud to begin gravitational collapse. As the cloud begins to shrink, the conservation of angular momentum forces the spin rate of material in the cloud to speed up. As material is falling inward, it also rotates around the cloud's center at ever higher rates. Eventually, some of that gas is going so fast that a balance between the gravity of the newly forming star and what is called centrifugal force is achieved. That stuff then stops moving inward and goes into orbit around the young star, forming a disk, some material of which eventually becomes planets. So, the conservation of angular momentum is, literally, why we have planets in the universe!
Gymnastics, a cosmic sport
How does this appear in gymnastics? When athletes hurl themselves into the air to perform a flip, the only force acting on them is gravity. But since gravity only affects their "center of mass," it cannot apply forces in a way that changes the athlete's spin. But the gymnasts can do that for themselves by using the conservation of angular momentum.
By changing how their mass is arranged, gymnasts can change how fast they spin. You can see this in the dismount phase of the uneven bar competitions. When a gymnast comes off the bars and performs a flip by tucking their legs inward, they can quickly increase their rotation rate in midair. The sudden dramatic increase in the speed of their flip is what makes us gasp in astonishment. It is both scary and a beautiful testament to the athletes' ability to intuitively control the physics of their bodies. And it is also the exact same physics that controls the birth of planets.
"As above so below," goes the old saying. You should keep that in mind as you watch the glory that is the Olympics. That is because it is not just athletes that have this intuitive understanding of physics. We all have it, and we use it every day, from walking down the stairs to swinging a hammer. So, it is no exaggeration to claim that the first place we came to understand the deepest principles of physics was not in contemplating the heavens but moving through the world in our own earthbound flesh.