A New Approach To Treating Depression

In this episode of the MQ Open Mind podcast, published on 31 October 2023, Professor David Nutt, Director of the Psychedelic Research Center at Imperial College London, joins Professor Rory O’Connor and Craig Perryman to discuss a new approach to treating depression.

David specializes in research into drugs that affect the brain and conditions such as addiction, anxiety and sleep. David is currently researching whether psychedelic drugs can be effective against treatment-resistant depression.

“My claim to fame is that I have probably given more different types of drugs, particularly drugs that act on the brain, particularly illegal drugs to humans and to anyone alive, maybe ever.”

In the podcast, Professor David speaks passionately about the exciting and ground-breaking work he and his team have done on addiction, psychedelics and depression, as well as celebrating risk versus reward and reflecting on the politicization of drugs. This article summarizes an episode worth listening to.

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The professor himself has been fascinated by science since he was a child. He remembers that he fell in love with the subject when he was 10 years old when he was shown how science detected the power of atmospheric pressure. From there to being “fascinated by the mind” there was a small leap.

“I was about 16 or 17, starting my A-level exams and listening to people like Gray Walter talk about EEG and how you can measure things that happen in the brain. “I went to university to study natural sciences at Cambridge, but I changed from zoology to medicine because it was easier to study what I wanted to study, which was humans.”

In college, David was trained by people he greatly admired, including Jimmy Mitchell, who discovered GABBA as a neurotransmitter, and Les Iverson, who discovered neuroadrenaline uptake sites. The professor also trained in medicine at Guy’s Hospital and St. Mary’s Hospital before turning to research, where he has been ever since. But amid a kaleidoscope of diverse scientific interests, it is psychiatry and pharmacology that ultimately kept his childhood fascination alive.

“I started doing neurology, I got bored and moved on to psychiatry. That’s endlessly fascinating and you never saturate your knowledge base with psychiatry. “Then I gravitated toward pharmacology because the explanatory power of neurotransmitters and receptors is simply overwhelming, and then toward the clinical utility of medications.”

Politics and claim to fame

However, David’s aforementioned claim to fame did not come without some concerns being raised, which interviewer Professor Rory questions David about. When it comes to balancing risks, harms and benefits, David has put a lot of thought into dealing with his approach. And for him, there is politics involved and historical context to consider. In the episode, David summarizes the long history of drug policy and what he considers political control over pharmacology.

“Anti-drug policy is largely driven by political expediency…The war on drugs has been perpetuated through the need to get particularly Republican politicians elected…So American drug use policy and the war on drugs was a way to get votes. Drugs like medical cannabis and psychedelics really helped people in the 1950s and 1960s and have been banned for the last 50 years. They could be helping sick people. “It is truly the worst case of censorship in the world.”

Psychedelics, depression and addiction

David has dedicated much of his career to understanding the neurochemistry of addiction and the scientific, compassionate approach to understanding the behavior of addicts. David explains in the episode why addiction makes sense.

“In particular, there are disorders in the release of endorphins in people with addictions. There are particular challenges to the release of endorphins for those with addictions, so certain activities that would mostly release dopamine and endorphins, that doesn’t happen for those who are addicted. So addiction is the only drug that activates that system.”

David made discoveries using psychedelics that ultimately led us to where we are now in understanding depression. Psychedelics caused a profound disruption of brain activity, a fragmentation of it, producing what we now call the entropic brain: a chaotic form of brain activity.

“It turns out that chaos can be helpful in breaking thought patterns like those experienced in depression. So, it was that discovery that led us to do more studies on depression. To our delight, we discovered that it is possible to break the repetitive loops of negative thoughts in depression. “It’s like a reset, you can get the brain to think more efficiently again.”

Revolutionary: the molecule of God and transformation

David is now organizing a pilot study into heroin addiction and whether these types of treatments can be helpful for those looking to break out of the cycle of addiction. This study begins in 2024 and David says in the episode how hopeful he is about the results.

David talks about how his team has set out to compare the brain effects of as many psychedelics as possible. They have done, as he says, “the definitive imaging work” on the effects of psilocybin, LSD, and DMT. Now they are researching 5-MeO-DMT, the molecule of God. When people take this, they can experience entering different dimensions. David’s team is investigating the brain footprint of these drugs and the extent to which we can utilize their effects.

Some people already use the ‘molecule of God’ in a treatment called Ayahuasca a South American psychoactive drink, traditionally used by indigenous cultures and folk healers in the Amazon and Orinoco basins. for spiritual ceremonies, divination and healing of a variety of psychosomatic ailments. However, in this procedure, David explains, DMT is combined with an inhibitor, meaning we can drink it to allow it to reach the brain. David uses a different version in UK trials and his team has found that it produces a fairly strong reduction in depression scores.

Looking ahead, where does David see the use of psychedelics for the treatment of psychological illnesses? It is very clear in his response to Professor Rory.

“Psychedelics will revolutionize psychiatry. They will revolutionize any internal disorder, whether it is depression, eating disorders, addiction. Studies have already been done on the treatment of body dysmorphic disorder. They will be transformative.”

In David’s opinion, the transformation could come soon. In the episode, he explains that Australia has already adopted some of these approaches and assumes that most Western countries will adopt psychedelic treatments within the next 5 years.

To listen or watch the episode, click below.

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