Short-acting psychedelic offers promising new treatment pathway for depression and anxiety
A new survey into the anti-depressant qualities of a short-acting psychedelic has reported extraordinarily positive improvements in well-being. The research, led by a team from Johns Hopkins University, suggests the brief duration of action seen in the drug 5-MeO-DMT makes it potentially more useful in clinical applications than longer acting psychedelics such as psilocybin and LSD.
Dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, was once described by counter-culture figurehead Timothy Leary as the "nuclear bomb of the psychedelic family." Its effects come on fast, often within a minute of being inhaled or injected, and tend to only last for anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes. For this reason it became anecdotally known as the "businessman's trip" – a psychedelic one could effectively take in a lunch break.
One particular derivative of DMT is known as 5-MeO-DMT. Naturally found in many plant species, and more infamously the venom of the Bufo Alvarius toad, 5-MeO-DMT is perhaps one of the most potent forms of DMT. It is strong and heavily dissociative.
While other psychedelic agents such as psilocybin are being investigated for beneficial clinical uses, DMT is still relatively understudied outside of its potential to trigger mystical or near-death experiences. A compelling 2017 study, from a team of Brazilian scientists, explored the effects of 5-MeO-DMT on lab-grown mini-brains. That study found the drug affected the regulation of almost 1,000 different proteins, many of which relate to learning, memory and the formation of new synapses. The subsequent hypothesis from that research was that 5-MeO-DMT may serve as a potential anti-depressant.
The new Johns Hopkins research studied reports from an independent group of 5-MeO-DMT users that has been experimenting with this particular psychedelic for over a decade. The group was established in 2007, four years before 5-MeO-DMT was officially classified as a schedule one controlled drug in the United States.
The researchers surveyed 362 adults, with the majority (63 percent) reporting having only used 5-MeO-DMT between one and three times. A striking 80 percent of the subjects reported improvements in both depression and anxiety following their 5-MeO-DMT experiences.
"Research has shown that psychedelics given alongside psychotherapy help people with depression and anxiety," says Alan Davis, one of the researchers working on the project. "However, psychedelic sessions usually require 7—8 hours per session because psychedelics typically have a long duration of action. Because 5-MeO-DMT is short-acting and lasts approximately 30-90 minutes, it could be much easier to use as an adjunct to therapy because current therapies usually involve a 60—90 minute session."
Last year, the psychedelic agent psilocybin was granted Breakthrough Status by the FDA. Early clinical evidence demonstrated the psychedelic to be so promising as a treatment for major depression that the FDA will now assist and expedite subsequent development processes. Of course, as Davis suggests, the bigger challenge scientists are facing in turning these psychedelic agents into clinical treatments is the long duration of acute action.
A dose of psilocybin results in acute effects lasting up to eight hours. This requires extensive treatment scenarios to be established allowing for the safe clinical administration of the drug. DMT on the other hand, offers a much briefer duration of action, allowing for a hypothetical treatment session of less than two hours. This could potentially include drug administration and integration therapy rolled into shorter more manageable stretches of time.
Of course, 5-MeO-DMT still requires a great deal more study to establish whether it is as effective as psilocybin in treating depression and anxiety. Prior research has established the drug to have a good safety profile, so while more work is undeniably necessary, the early data is looking promising.
"It is important to examine the short- and long-term effects of 5-MeO-DMT, which may enhance mood in general or may be particularly mood enhancing for those individuals experiencing clinically significant negative mood," explains Davis. "Regardless, this research is in its infancy and further investigation is warranted in healthy volunteers."
The new research was published in The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse.