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Can illegal drugs help depression? Ketamine for depression and LSD for improving brain power; meet the lady who funds the science that no-one else will do, Amanda Feilding is on a mission to unlock the secrets of the mind
Many people will enjoy some yoga or meditation this weekend. Both practices have proven health benefits, but for some people knowing that it works is never enough. They have to know why it works - what is really happening in the brain - and they will stop at nothing to find out, even if it means initiating and funding the research themselves.
Amanda Feilding is one of those people. Last week she started an investigation that will examine the changes in blood flow during meditation, and how this prompts states of relaxation.
But this is just one of Feilding's curiosities. Also known as Lady Neidpath, Feilding is not a scientist, but spends a six-figure sum of her own money each year to explore the inner workings of our mind: how we think; where creativity comes from; and how we can harness this knowledge. Through her charitable trust, the Beckley Foundation, she instigated the first scientific trial in 35 years to use LSD on human subjects. Based in Beckley Park, the Oxfordshire estate where Feilding has spent all her life, the foundation's remit is to push for drug policy reform and fund research that will delve into the altered states of consciousness induced by meditation, deep breathing and powerful psychoactive drugs such as LSD. Even trepanning, the ancient practice of drilling a hole in the skull, is a line of modern inquiry as a treatment for Alzheimer's. It is research that - in the UK at least - no one else appears willing to back.
“We are on the verge of making real breakthroughs,” she says.
Why would an English Lady want to spend her money on high-risk projects with poor-to-zero financial returns? Feilding's fascination with consciousness started at an early age. Interested in spirituality through her Roman Catholic upbringing, she was sent aged 16 to India to visit her godfather, a Buddhist monk. She went on to study mysticism and comparative religion at Oxford University and dabbled with drugs throughout the Sixties. But her interest in the medical applications of such substances sprung from a friendship with Albert Hofmann, the Swiss scientist who invented LSD, and who pushed for the medical benefits of the drug to be investigated. Hofmann died this year aged 102, shortly before the foundation published his last book, Hofmann's Elixir: LSD and the New Eleusis, a collection of his essays and lectures.
Feilding realised that there was no research at UK universities into hallucinogens, so she started her own. “The best way to go was to set up a foundation, get an impressive board of top scientists to see if we can get some research going,” she says. “We are very tunnel-visioned in our view of consciousness. We tend to direct our vision to technical advances, like things that have got us to the Moon,” she says. It would be easy to label her as merely a well-heeled old hippy, but for some years she has been networking with scientists, ministers, drug czars, and other academic intelligentsia. Her board of advisers includes top international names, such as Colin Blakemore, former head of the UK Medical Research Council, and Mike Trace, her co-director of the Beckley Policy Programme, who worked at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime until 2003.
She rates one of her most rewarding achievements as kickstarting a paper that reassessed the relative harms of legal drugs alongside prohibited substances. The paper, published in The Lancet, grew out of Beckley Foundation seminars in 2003 and 2004. It caused a stir: of the 20 drugs, alcohol was the fifth most dangerous, ketamin sixth, and MDMA (Ecstasy) the third least dangerous. Heroin and cocaine were ranked first and second most dangerous.
Research is beginning to bear fruit
Although active for more than five years, the Beckley Foundation is only now showing signs of success. Last year it scored a serious hit: the first permission to use LSD with human subjects in a scientific context in 35 years. The study - at a secret institution in the US - is investigating the effects of LSD on the brain chemistry underpinning consciousness and how it might modulate the creative process. “The study of consciousness is so central to our happiness, survival and creativity, it's a mistake not to explore scientifically the potential benefits this compound might yield,” says Feilding.
Another Beckley-funded study to monitor blood flow in the brain using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in people under the influence of LSD is also poised to begin in Europe. Micro-doses of LSD might increase blood flow in some parts of the brain, as has been noted in its chemical cousin psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms).
Tracking the changes as participants undergo cognitive tests could reveal how the brain completes complex tasks, hopefully providing insights into how we can boost brain power.
“To deny science a valuable tool like psychedelics is just myopic. It's ignoring a good possibility to learn more about the brain, our master tool, and how these substances can be used as an aid in psychotherapy.”
Cannabis will also come under the microscope. Dave Nutt, a neuropharmacologist at the University of Bristol, will use brain-imaging techniques to measure the biological basis of the marijuana “high”. No one understands why some users find cannabis appealing, and in some it provokes the opposite reaction: anxiety. Because cannabis has potential as a medicine for conditions such as multiple sclerosis, but is not well tolerated by many people, clinicians want to find out why such reactions occur. The brain scanner experiments may reveal whether different parts of the brain are activated.
Another study at the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London, will compare the effects of two of the principal components of cannabis, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). The ratio between the two chemicals in the cannabis plant is thought to affect whether users experience a pleasurable high or the cosmic heebie-jeebies. This is a first in the UK - previous research has been limited only to the direct medical applications.
"We need to overcome taboos"
Research using psychedelic drugs has a chequered history around the world. Many studies conducted in the Fifties and Sixties that reported benefits were not properly controlled and lacked adequate follow-ups. Feilding knows this, but points out that methodology and technology have improved, particularly in areas such as brain-imaging techniques.
“In a scientific age we need to give scientific explanations to overcome taboos,” she says. She will also be working with University College London on a study into the antidepressant effect of ketamine, a medical anaesthetic growing in popularity at clubs and parties.
Scientific philanthropy is not common in the UK. But Robin Murray from the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London, says that private funding is certainly welcome for studies that governments shun. And although Professor Murray doubts that hallucinogens will have direct therapeutic benefits, he says that understanding their neurochemical effects will help us better to understand mental illness. “Derivatives and drugs based on changing their molecules may well have benefits.”
And in one of the most controversial studies, Feilding is collaborating with a Russian neurophysiologist, Yuri Moskalenko, in studies into cerebral circulation and age-related decline in cognition. Incredibly, measures to counteract progressive senility could include trepanation: drilling a small hole into the skull, an operation that has been performed for perhaps thousands of years. The theory goes that releasing the pressure in the cranium by trepanation can increase cerebral circulation and prevent age-related cognitive decline.
Harriet Millward, the deputy chief executive of the Alzheimer's Research Trust, says there is no conclusive medical evidence that trepanning improves brain function. However, the procedure has been understudied so far and until further research has been undertaken the possibility of beneficial effects remains open.
Feilding stresses that her work is not designed to promote drug use; she is aware of the destructive effect they can have on people's lives. She is interested simply in investigating the medical benefits of such substances, in a controlled and safe environment.
“What motivates me is that I feel it's an area where one can contribute a real benefit to humanity,” she says.
HISTORY OF DRUGS
3,000BC Cannabis is cultivated in China and Asia. Evidence of cannabis smoking in Eastern Europe 1800s Laudanum, a cordial containing opium, becomes hugely popular. Coleridge and Keats are fans 1874 A British scientist isolates heroin from morphine 1880 Doctors start to use cocaine as an anaesthetic in surgery 1903 Cocaine is substituted with caffeine in Coca-Cola 1912 MDMA, later known as Ecstasy, is synthesised by pharmaceutical company Merck 1916 Harrods withdraws gift packs for soldiers at the front that contain cocaineand morphine 1955 UK bans heroin import, export and manufacture 1952 The world's first therapeutic LSD clinic opened in Worcestershire 21st century Scientists study drugs such as marijuana and LSD as potential treatments for a range of ailments