“Let’s try to prevent a recurrence of what happened with psychedelics in the sixties”

“Let’s try to prevent a recurrence of what happened with psychedelics in the sixties”

Winner Hustinx prize Natasha Mason studies psychedelic drugs and cannabis

07-09-2023 · Science

What happens in your brain when you use cannabis or psychedelic drugs? And how can you incorporate these in the treatment of (mental) disorders? During the opening of the academic year, Natasha Mason, assistant professor at the Faculty of Psychology and Neurosciences (FPN), received the Edmond Hustinx prize of 15 thousand euro for her research on this.

“Don’t tell anyone this, because it could put an end to your career.” That was the advice that an American professor gave Natasha Mason about ten years ago, when she was a student of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin in the American city of Madison. Her question to the professor? What would be the best way to engage in scientific research into psychedelic drugs?

Her interest in this was sparked when she came across a study in the literature in which psychedelic drugs were used in the treatment of depressions and anxiety disorders. “I was already fascinated by the question how medicines make people feel better. But in practice – while I was a student, I also worked in a pharmacy – I also saw the negative sides of certain drugs, especially antidepressants and opiates. A lot of people complained that they didn’t work, but at the same time, they could no longer do without them. Just how different that picture was in that study about psychedelic drugs: many participants felt better after only one treatment, and the effect also lasted for months.”

But further research? There was no question of this being possible in the United States since psychedelic drugs were prohibited at the end of the sixties – a period where the popularity of in particular LSD took flight. What remained, was a tremendous stigma. She would be better off keeping her interest to herself, said the professor. “He was afraid that people would put me down as a hippy or a drug addict. ‘Give it another twenty years, maybe the time will be right then’, he said to me.”

Renaissance

Mason ignored this advice. Fortunately, because those twenty years was a huge miscalculation, she now concludes, sitting in the canteen on Universiteitssingel 40 in Randwyck. For nine years now, she has been doing research into psychedelic drugs and cannabis in this building. First as a PhD student, by now she is an assistant professor. In the meantime, a true “psychedelic renaissance” has taken place, she says. “More and more studies were appearing worldwide, with promising results, as a result of which attention and resources increased too.”

Even in her home country, the mood has changed completely, the American has noticed. “Ten years ago, Maastricht was one of the few places in the world where clinical studies with psychedelic drugs in people occurred. That is why I came here. Now, there are dozens of research groups, many of which – of all places – in the United States, even at prestigious institutes.”

Creativity

In Maastricht, Mason is focussing on how drugs affect the way the brain works – and hence people’s behaviour. “For example, by investigating people’s brains in an MRI scanner while they are under the influence, or by having them fill in a questionnaire.” In her research, she looks into both the direct effects and the long-term effects. “This includes things like the increase in creativity, which is often associated with the use of psychedelic drugs. We discovered that test subjects who had taken psilocybin, the active agent in magic mushrooms, became less creative when they were asked to carry out tasks. But a week later, they appeared to have more new ideas than the people in the placebo group.”

It is characteristics like these that are useful in the treatment of psychiatric problems, Mason explains. “Psychedelic drugs increase the plasticity of the brain; they create new connections between brain cells. This process may enable you to think about things in a different way. That can be very effective for people suffering from depression, who are often trapped in certain ways of thinking.” By a better understanding of what happens in the brain, she hopes to be able to improve therapies. “This means, optimising positive effects, but also minimising negative ones.”

Addiction

Plenty of gain can still be made in the case of the latter, says Mason. “Take cannabis, into which we are also doing research – in addition to psychedelic drugs. More and more people are using it for medicinal purposes, for example to alleviate pain, but this also has risks. Certainly for women. It is known that they react badly to the use of weed more often. In them, it more often triggers feelings of fear, and they are generally more prone to addiction. But why is that? Not much is known about this. In the past, research was often only carried out on men.”

Mason wants to study this with the 15 thousand euro from the Hustinx prize. “Sex hormones may play a role here. During certain parts of the menstruation cycle, when the concentrations of certain hormones peak, nerve cells may be more sensitive to cannabis. This could mean that women should use more or less cannabis at certain times during their cycle. We want to test this hypothesis with test subjects.”

Wonder drug

Mason is working on many more projects. That is necessary too, because the demand for knowledge is great, she says. “In the case of cannabis, we are actually behind the times. Estimations show that 4 per cent of the world population uses weed, and this will only increase now that it is being legalised in more and more places. At the same time, a lot is unclear. Things like, how much you can take and still be able to drive a car safely. For alcohol, the limit has been clearly determined, but for weed hardly at all.”

Science will also have to make an effort to catch up in the field of psychedelic drugs. “I expect that psychedelic medicines will become available for a large section of the population in five to ten years. You see that more and more businesses are smelling the money and want to put it on the market as a ‘ready-made’ wonder drug. With the message: ‘take this drug and you'll be rid of your symptoms’. But that is not exactly how it works. Until now, there has mainly been research into therapy, in which someone takes it under supervision. There is not a lot of knowledge about the effects when people take it on their own.”

She has mixed feelings about the current hype around psychedelic drugs, among others, on online forums such as Reddit and in popular documentaries on Netflix. “You see that there is a lot of interest. When we put out a call for test subjects, we sometimes receive hundreds of e-mails within one day, from people over the whole world. On the one hand, this is good, but I am at times scared that it is moving too quickly. You see in more and more countries that laws on drugs are being adapted due to public pressure. Let us try to prevent a recurrence of the sixties – when psychedelic drugs ‘escaped’ from the lab too quickly, with bans and stigma as a result. It is better to have a good understanding of them first.”

 

Photo: Joey Roberts

Categories: news_top, Science
Tags: psychedelics,cannabis,hustinx,hustinx prize,mason,research

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