A for-profit company that Peter Thiel invests in has
plans to start clinical trials of magic mushrooms for
depression within the first three months of 2018.
Psychedelics appear to disrupt the brain’s activity
patterns in a positive and life-changing way.
Several research institutions are studying psychedelics
for their potential to treat depression, anxiety, addiction,
When Clark Martin
tripped on magic mushrooms for the first time, he felt as
though he’d been knocked off a boat and left for dead.
“It was like falling off the boat in the open ocean, looking
back, and the boat is gone. Then the water disappears. Then you
disappear,” he told Business Insider in January.
But Martin wasn’t alone. Two researchers from New York University
were by his side to guide him through his trip. It was an
experience that Martin had signed up for as part of
one of the first large-scale clinical trials of magic mushrooms
for depression and anxiety.
The results of that study were so promising that they
jump-started a sort of renaissance in psychedelic research that’s
now being led by a handful of non-profit research organizations
One of them is Compass Pathways, a for-profit company that
Silicon Valley entrepreneur Peter Thiel invested in last year.
The UK-based group announced last week that it plans to start
clinical trials of psilocybin for depression and anxiety sometime
within the first three months of 2018,
the Financial Times reported. They aim to enroll 400 people
across eight countries including the United Kingdom, Germany,
Finland, the Netherlands, and Spain — potentially making it the
largest international study of the drug to-date.
Psychedelics disrupt our normal thought patterns
Clark Martin learned within a few minutes that his initial
feelings of panic while on the shrooms were temporary. Over the
next few hours, he felt overwhelmed by an enduring sense of
tranquility and a feeling of oneness with his surroundings. Those
feelings persisted to such an extent that he felt like a new
person, even years after his initial experience, he told Business
“The whole ‘you’ thing just kinda drops out into a more timeless,
more formless presence,” Martin said.
Martin was one of several people who had been diagnosed with
cancer and developed what’s known as end-of-life anxiety and
depression. Deep feelings of hopelessness had driven him to
near-complete isolation, ruining his relationships with his
family and friends and creating a vicious cycle where he
constantly felt lonely, trapped, and afraid.
But his mushroom trip in 2010 seemed to act as a catalyst — a
“kick-start,” he likes to call it — for changing the way he sees
and approaches the world. Being less anxious and depressed were
the most obvious initial benefits of the trip treatment, but they
only touch the tip of the iceberg for him.
Where he used to be trapped in his mind during social situations,
he’s come to appreciate his relationships in a way he never would
have thought possible. He also managed to revive a relationship
with his daughter that had been withering for years.
“Now if I’m meeting people, the default is to be just present —
not just physically, but mentally present to the conversation,”
Martin said. “That switch has been profound.”
He also revived his relationship with his daughter — who was born
the same year he was diagnosed with cancer and who he had
struggled to connect with for years — and reconnect with his
father before he passed away.
All of these benefits appear to be related to the effect that
shrooms have on the brains of people with depression.
Brain scan studies suggest that in people with depression,
specific brain circuits — such as those involved in the sense of
self — are overly strengthened, while other circuits — like those
involved in a sense of reward or positivity — are weakened.
Shrooms appear to essentially balance that activity by tamping
down on the negative circuits and ramping up activity in the
“In the depressed brain, in the addicted brain, in the obsessed
brain, it gets locked into a pattern of thinking or processing
that’s driven by the frontal, the control center,” David Nutt, the
director of the neuropsychopharmacology unit in the division of
brain sciences at Imperial College London, told Business Insider
“Psychedelics disrupt that process so people can escape.”
A handful of research institutions and companies are leading the
charge for psychedelic research
The company that Thiel invested in, Compass Pathways, has kept a
relatively low profile since being founded in 2015. But it has
some notable advisors, including Tom Insel, the former director
of the US National Institute of Mental Health, and Imperial
College neuroscientist Robin
The company isn’t alone in its efforts to study psychedelics for
Usona, a non-profit
company based in Madison, Wisconsin, is also in the planning
phases of studies of psilocybin for depression and anxiety. Its
advisors include three American researchers who were involved in
Clark Martin’s clinical trial from Johns Hopkins University and
New York University.
Their work is part of a spate of ongoing research supported by
several British and American groups, including the Multidisciplinary Association for
Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), the Beckley Foundation, and the
Heffter Research Institute.
Some of them are also looking into
pairing psychedelics with in-person talk therapy to
provide people with a means of discussing the issues that the
drugs may bring to the forefront.
“Psychedelic therapy … offers an opportunity to dig down and
get to the heart of problems,” psychiatrist Ben Sessa said at a recent
conference in London on the science of psychedelics.
This resurgence of science surrounding psychedelics makes some
researchers believe these drugs may actually be the closest
they’ve ever been to federal approval.
“I’m absolutely sure that, within ten years, psilocybin will be
an accepted treatment for depression,” said Nutt.