Alexandra Antonesei & Dr Ciara McCabe, NRG Lab, Psychology Dept. University of Reading.
During the Cheltenham Science Festival in June 2017 a highly informative symposium focusing on drug use and drug research was sponsored by the BAP called Drugs and the Brain. The panel consisted of Dr Sally Adams from the University of Bath, a psychologist and expert in alcohol and its effects on the mind and body; Dr Robin Carhart-Harris of Imperial College London, a neuropsychopharmacologist with a keen interest in the benefits of psychedelic drugs for mental health; and Dr Suzi Gage of the University of Liverpool a psychologist interested in understanding associations between substance use and mental health and who chaired the panel. Lastly joining them was the charismatic award-winning novelist and journalist Lionel Shriver. Together they addressed the pros and cons of drug use and the implications for research, health policies, ethics and society.
Probably less often thought of as a drug, alcohol is of course our most popular drug with alcohol related harm costing England around £21bn per year. Much research has explained how alcohol has its rewarding effects by its interactions with neurotransmitters in the brain such as dopamine, GABA and glutamate. However much less is known about its negative effects i.e. the dreaded hangover.
We can put a man on the Moon but we still haven’t figured out how to actually prevent a hangover. Priorities, people…come on (Tweeter wisdom)
Dr Sally Adams discussed her work on understanding hangovers, specifically she talked about how we may or may not function when hungover. This is of course extremely important when you think that many people drive to work and are making potentially very important decisions when hungover. Dr Adams talked about how difficult it actually is to study hangovers, and how difficult it is to for e.g. control for what people eat and drink during a night of intoxication. Further she compared the ethics and safety of lab settings for alcohol studies versus naturalistic settings in which drinkers have a normal night out and then report to the lab the next day for testing. Although extremely important work (we all want that hangover cure!) her work also highlights the need to think “should we even be going to work when hungover?” given its effects on our cognition.
Dr Robin Carhart-Harris discussed with the panel how his work with psilocybin (magic mushrooms) might help combat depression and anxiety. He also discussed his work examining MDMA (ecstasy) and how this drug may also be a useful depression treatment as it interacts with serotonin a major neurotransmitter in the brain involved in negative mood. He talked about how psychedelic drugs might allow a certain flexibility, adaptability and learning to occur which in turn could aid those with depression and anxiety who often get “stuck” in negative thinking patterns.
At this point Lionel Shriver shared her personal experiences with psychedelic drug taking. She agreed with Dr Carhart-Harris about the mind altering qualities of the drugs that she described as “truth” drugs, i.e. “they allow you to be more lucid and therefore actually think more clearly about things”. This she thought was a good thing and could see the possible treatment benefits of some of these effects.
Dr Carhart-Harris reported on some of his work including a small scale clinical trial examining the effects of psilocybin in people with chronic depression, unresponsive to traditional medication. Within 1 week and for up to three months improvements in depression, anxiety and anhedonia scores were recorded in those taking psilocybin. He also discussed how these drugs are not only involved in the serotonin system but they also seem to disrupt the connection between different brain regions of the ‘default mode network’. This is a network of activity thought to underlie the ability to think about the self, therefore disruption here might hinder the rumination and negative self-referential thoughts in depression. Dr Carhart-Harris stated, ‘after treatment with psychedelics there’s a kind of psychological renewal, or rebirth’. Therefore this discussion led the audience to think about the beneficial effects of mind altering psychedelic drugs and how they could be explored further as possible new anti-depressants.
The public eagerly wanted to know if they could cure their depressive and anxious symptoms with such psychedelic drugs, this prompted the chair Dr Suzi Gage to ask the panel to have a careful discussion about the message the symposium wanted to send. The panellists agreed that because there are also negative side-effects of drugs such as a lack of self-control, paranoia, panic, hallucinations, dissociation etc. much more work needs to be done on unlocking the medical benefits from drugs that are currently illegal today. Lionel Shriver reminded us that if alcohol was newly discovered today it may not be so freely available and cheap, especially given what we know about its harmful and addictive qualities. Lionel also provoked thoughts by commmenting that it was interesting that drugs such as alcohol which can blunt our brains activity are legal whilst other drugs that seem to sharpen our senses are illegal.
This led the chair Dr Suzi Gage to ask the audience to think about why some drugs are considered more dangerous than others and why we don’t have more honest open scientific discussions in the public domain about the potential medical therapeutics of currently illicit drugs.
The panel finished off by discussing the importance of education into the effects of both legal and illegal substances on the brain and body so that accurate information may be available for those curious about drugs and for those who are taking recreational drugs also. Dr Suzi Gage actually delivers myth-busting pod-casts called “Say why to drugs”.
One pill makes you larger / And one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you / Don’t do anything at all
Go ask Alice, when she’s 10 feet tall (Jefferson Airplane)