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Magic mushrooms, in conjunction with a psychotherapist's treatment, may be helpful in treating addiction, depression, anxiety, and other mental health ailments.

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Mental illness is a dark undercurrent in the lives of tens of millions of Americans. According to the World Health Organization, about 450 million people worldwide have a mental health disorder, which cut across all demographics, cultures, and socioeconomic classes.

One area of research seems to herald the first major breakthrough in decades — hallucinogen-assisted psychotherapy.

The U.S. National Institute on Mental Health estimates that severely debilitating mental health disorders cost the U.S. more than $300 billion per year, and that's not even counting the human toll of broken lives, devastated families, and a health care system stretched to the limit.

However, one area of research seems to herald the first major breakthrough in decades — hallucinogen-assisted psychotherapy. Drugs like psilocybin (obtained from "magic mushrooms"), LSD, and MDMA (known as the club drug, ecstasy) are being tested in combination with talk therapy for a variety of mental illnesses. These drugs, administered by a psychotherapist in a safe and controlled environment, are showing extraordinary results that other conventional treatments would take years to accomplish.

But the therapy will likely continue to face an uphill legal battle before it achieves FDA approval. It is up against not only current drug laws (all psychedelics remain illegal on the federal level) and strict FDA regulations, but a powerful status quo that has institutionalized fear of any drug used for recreational purposes.

How We Got Here

According to researchers Sean Belouin and Jack Henningfield, the use of psychedelic drugs has a long and winding history. It's believed that hallucinogenic substances have been used in healing ceremonies and religious rituals for thousands of years. Indigenous people in the U.S., Mexico, and Central and South America still use distillations from the peyote cactus and other hallucinogens in their religious ceremonies. And psilocybin mushrooms, also capable of causing hallucinations, grow throughout the world and are thought to have been used for millennia.

But psychedelic drugs didn't receive much research until 1943, when LSD's psychoactive effects were discovered by chemist Albert Hoffman. Hoffman tested the compound he had discovered years earlier on himself and found that the drug had profound mind-altering effects. He made the drug available to psychiatrists who were interested in testing it out as an adjunct to talk therapy. There were no truly effective drugs at the time for mental illnesses, and psychiatrists early on saw the possibility of psychedelics providing a kind of emotional catharsis that might represent therapeutic breakthroughs for many mental conditions.

During the 1950s and early 1960s, psychedelic drugs saw an increase in use within psychology, according to a 2018 article in Neuropharmacology. During this time, research on LSD and other hallucinogens was the subject of over 1,000 scientific papers, six international conferences, and several dozen books. LSD was widely prescribed to psychiatric patients, and by 1958, Hoffman had identified psilocybin as the hallucinogenic in "magic mushrooms," which was also administered. By 1965 some type of hallucinogenic had been given to more than 40,000 patients.

Then came a sea change. Psychedelic drugs caught the public's attention and there was widespread experimentation. The association with Hippie counterculture alarmed many and led to a legal and cultural backlash that stigmatized psychedelics for decades to come. In the mid-1960s, psychedelics were designated Schedule 1 drugs in the U.S., meaning they were seen as having "no accepted medical use and a high potential of abuse." Schedule 1 also implied that the drugs were more dangerous than cocaine, methamphetamine, Vicodin, and oxycodone, a perception that was far from proven but became an institutionalized part of drug enforcement. Medical use ceased and research dwindled down to close to zero.

For years, research into hallucinogenic-assisted therapy was basically dormant, until the 1990s when interest started to revive. In the 2000s, the first modern clinical trials of psilocybin were done by Francisco Moreno at the University of Arizona and Matthew Johnson at Johns Hopkins. Scientists in the 2010s, including Robin Carhart-Harris, started studying the use of psychedelics in the treatment of major depressive disorder (MDD).

In small trials with these patients, results showed significant and long-term improvement (for at least six months) after only two episodes of psilocybin-assisted therapy. In several studies, the guided experience of administering one of the psychedelic drugs along with psychotherapy seemed to result in marked improvement in a variety of disorders, including depression, anxiety, PTSD, and addiction.

The drugs allowed patients to experience a radical reframing of reality, helping them to become "unstuck" from the anxious and negative tape loops that played in their heads. According to Michael Pollan, an American author and professor of journalism who wrote the book, "How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence," psychedelics allow patients to see their lives through a kind of wide angle, where boundaries vanish and they're able to experience "consciousness without self." This perspective is usually accompanied by profound feelings of oneness with the universe.

Pollan likens the effect to a fresh blanketing of snow over the deep ruts of unproductive thinking, which characterize depression and other mental disorders. Once the new snow has fallen, the ruts disappear and a new path can be chosen. Relief from symptoms comes immediately, and in numerous studies, is sustained for months.

In spite of growing evidence for the safety and efficacy of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, the practice has major hurdles to cross on its quest for FDA approval.

Some of the most influential studies have focused on testing the use of psilocybin to treat end-of-life anxiety in patients diagnosed with a terminal illness. In 2016, Stephen Ross and colleagues tested a single dose of psilocybin on 29 subjects with end-of-life anxiety due to a terminal cancer diagnosis. A control group received a niacin pill. The researchers reported that of the 29 receiving psilocybin, all of the patients had "immediate, substantial, and sustained clinical benefits," even after six months.

In spite of growing evidence for the safety and efficacy of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, the practice has major hurdles to cross on its quest for FDA approval. The National Institutes of Health is not currently supporting any clinical trials and the research relies on private sources of funding, often with small research organizations that cannot afford the high cost of clinical trials.

Given the controversial nature of the drugs, researchers in psychedelic-assisted therapies may be cautious about publicity. Leapsmag reached out to several leaders in the field but none agreed to an interview.

Looking Ahead

Still, interest is building in the combination of psychedelic drugs and psychotherapy for treatment-resistant mental illnesses. Two months ago, Johns Hopkins University launched a new psychedelic research center with an infusion of $17 million from private investors. The center will focus on psychedelic-assisted therapies for opioid addiction, Alzheimer's disease, PTSD and major depression, to name just a few. Currently, of 51 cancer patients enrolled in a Hopkins study, more than half reported a decrease in depression and anxiety after receiving therapy with psilocybin. Two thirds even claimed that the experience was one of the most meaningful of their lives.

It is not unheard of for Schedule 1 drugs to make their way into medical use if they're shown to provide a bonafide improvement in a medical condition through well-designed clinical trials. MDMA, for example, has been designated a Breakthrough Therapy by the FDA as part of an Investigational New Drug Application. The FDA has agreed to a special protocol assessment that could speed up phase three clinical trials. The next step is for the data to be submitted to the FDA for an in-depth regulatory review. If the FDA agrees, MDMA-assisted therapy could be legalized.

Will the positive buzz around psychedelics persuade the NIH to provide the millions of dollars needed to push the field forward?

Robin Carhart-Harris believes the first drug that will receive FDA clearance is psilocybin, which he speculates could become legal in the next five to ten years. However, the field of psychedelic-assisted therapy needs more and larger clinical trials, preferably with the support of the NIH.

As Rucker and colleagues noted, the scientific literature bends toward the theme that the drugs are not necessarily therapeutic in and of themselves. It's the use of hallucinogens within a "psychologically supportive context" with a trained expert that's helpful. It's currently unknown how many users of recreational drugs are self-medicating for depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses. But without the guidance of a knowledgeable psychotherapist, those who are self-medicating may not be helping themselves at all.

Will the positive buzz around psychedelics persuade the NIH to provide the millions of dollars needed to push the field forward? Given the changing climate in public opinion around these drugs and the need for breakthroughs in mental health therapies, it's possible that in the foreseeable future, this bold new therapy will become part of the mental health arsenal.

Eve Herold
Eve Herold is a science writer specializing in issues at the intersection of science and society. She has written and spoken extensively about stem cell research and regenerative medicine and the social and bioethical aspects of leading-edge medicine. Her 2007 book, Stem Cell Wars, was awarded a Commendation in Popular Medicine by the British Medical Association. Her 2016 book, Beyond Human, has been nominated for the Kirkus Prize in Nonfiction, and a forthcoming book, Robots and the Women Who Love Them, will be released in 2019.

The beauty industry heavily hypes the nascent promise of stem cells for rejuvenation.

(© canbedone/Adobe)


The beauty market abounds with high-end creams and serums that claim the use of stem cells to rejuvenate aging skin.

Selling on the internet and at department stores like Nordstrom, these products promise "breakthrough" applications to plump, smooth, and "reverse visible signs of aging," and at least one product offers to create a "regenerative firming serum, moisturizer, and eye cream" from customers' own stem cells – for a whopping $1200.

The beauty industry is heavily hyping glimmers of the nascent field of stem cell therapy.

Steeped in clinical-sounding terms like "proteins and peptides from pluripotent stem cells," the marketing of these products evokes a dramatic restoration of youthfulness based on cutting-edge science. But the beauty industry is heavily hyping glimmers of the nascent field of stem cell therapy. So what is real and what's not? And is there in fact a way to harness the potential of stem cells in the service of beauty?

Plant vs. Human Stem Cells

Stem cells do indeed have tremendous promise for treating a wide range of diseases and conditions. The cells come from early-stage embryos or, more commonly, from umbilical cord blood or our own bodies. Embryonic stem cells are considered the body's "master" cells because they can develop into any of our several hundred cell types. Adult stem cells, on the other hand, reside in mature tissues and organs like the brain, bone marrow, and skin, and their versatility is more limited. As an internal repair system for many tissue types, they replenish sick, injured, and worn-out cells.

Nowadays, with some sophisticated chemical coaxing, adult stem cells can be returned to an embryonic-like blank state, with the ability to become any cell type that the body might need.

Beauty product manufacturers convey in their advertising that the rejuvenating power of these cells could hold the key to the fountain of youth. But there's something the manufacturers don't always tell you: their products do not typically use human stem cells.

"The whole concept of stem cells is intriguing to the public," says Tamara Griffiths, a consultant dermatologist for the British Skin Foundation. "But what these products contain is plant stem cells and, more commonly, chemicals that have been derived from plant stem cells."

The plant stem cells are cultured in the lab with special media to get them to produce signaling proteins and peptides, like cytokines and chemokines. These have been shown to be good for reducing inflammation and promoting healthy cell functioning, even if derived from plants. However, according to Griffiths, there are so many active ingredients in these products that it's hard to say just what role each one of them plays. We do know that their ability to replenish human stem cells is extremely limited, and the effects of plant stem cells on human cells are unproven.

"...any cosmetic that is advertised to be anti-aging due to plant stem cells at this time is about as effective as all the skin creams without stem cells."

Whether products containing plant cell-derived ingredients work better than conventional skin products is unknown because these products are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and may rest on dubious, even more or less nonexistent, research. Cosmetics companies have conducted most of the research and the exact formulas they devise are considered proprietary information. They have no incentive to publish their research findings, and they don't have to meet standards imposed by the FDA unless they start using human cells in their products.

"There are biological limits to what you can do with plant cells in the first place," says Griffiths. "No plant stem cell is going to morph into a human skin cell no matter what magic medium you immerse it in. Nor is a plant cell likely to stimulate the production of human stem cells if applied to the skin."

According to Sarah Baucus, a cell biologist, for any type of stem cell to be of any use whatsoever, the cells must be alive. The processing needed to incorporate living cells into any type of cream or serum would inevitably kill them, rendering them useless. The splashy marketing of these products suggests that results may be drastic, but none of these creams is likely to produce the kind of rejuvenating effect that would be on par with a facelift or several other surgical or dermatological procedures.

"Plant stem cell therapy needs to move in the right direction to implement its inherent potential in skin care," researchers wrote in a 2017 paper in the journal Future Science OA. "This might happen in the next 20 years but any cosmetic that is advertised to be anti-aging due to plant stem cells at this time is about as effective as all the skin creams without stem cells."

From Beauty Counter to Doctor's Clinic

Where do you turn if you still want to harness the power of stem cells to reinvigorate the skin? Is there a legitimate treatment using human cells? The answer is possibly, but for that you have to switch from the Nordstrom cosmetics counter to a clinic with a lab, where plastic surgeons work with specialists who culture and manipulate living cells.

Plastic surgeons are experts in wound healing, a process in which stem cells play a prominent role. Doctors have long used the technique of taking fat from the body and injecting it into hollowed-out or depressed areas of the face to fill in injuries, correct wrinkles, and improve the face's curvature. Lipotransfer, or the harvesting of body fat and injecting it into the face, has been around for many years in traditional plastic surgery clinics. In recent years, some plastic surgeons have started to cull stem cells from fat. One procedure that does just that is called cell-assisted lipotransfer, or CAL.

In CAL, adipose tissue, or fat, is harvested by liposuction, usually from the lower abdomen. Fat contains stem cells that can differentiate into several cell types, including skin, muscle, cartilage, and bone. Fat tissue has an especially stem cell-rich layer. These cells are then mixed with some regular fat, making in effect a very stem cell-rich fat solution, right in the doctor's office. The process of manipulating the fat cells takes about 90 to 110 minutes, and then the solution is ready to be injected into the skin, to fill in the lips, the cheeks, and the nasolabial folds, or the deep folds around the nose and mouth.

Unlike regular fat, which is often injected into the face, some experts claim that the cell-enriched fat has better, longer-lasting results. The tissue graft grows its own blood vessels, an advantage that may lead to a more long-lasting graft – though the research is mixed, with some studies showing they do and other studies showing the complete opposite.

For almost all stem cell products on the market today in the U.S., it is not yet known whether they are safe or effective, despite how they are marketed.

One of the pioneers in CAL, a plastic surgeon in Brazil named Dr. Aris Sterodimas, says that the stem cells secrete growth factors that rejuvenate the skin -- like the plant stem cells that are used in topical creams and serums. Except that these cells are human stem cells and hence have inherently more potential in the human body.

Note that CAL doesn't actually result in large numbers of fresh, new replacement cells, as might be imagined. It's simply fat tissue treated to make it richer in stem cells, to have more of the growth-inducing proteins and peptides delivered to the dermis layer of the skin.

Sterodimas works alongside a tissue engineer to provide CAL in his clinic. He uses it as a way to rebuild soft tissues in people disfigured by accidents or diseases, or who are suffering the after-effects of radiation treatments for cancer.

Plastic surgeons get plenty of these patients. But how widespread is CAL for beauty purposes? Sterodimas says that he regularly performs the procedure for Brazilians, and it's widely available in Europe and Japan. In the U.S., the procedure hasn't taken off because there is no FDA approval for the various methods used by different doctors and clinics. A few major academic centers in the U.S. offer the treatment on a clinical trials basis and there are several trials ongoing.

But there is a downside to all lipotransfers: the transplanted fat will eventually be absorbed by the body. Even the cell-enriched fat has a limited lifespan before reabsorption. That means if you like the cosmetic results of CAL, you'll have to repeat the treatment about every two years to maintain the plumping, firming, and smoothing effects on the skin. The results of CAL are "superior to the results of laser treatments and other plastic surgery interventions, though the effect is not as dramatic as a facelift," says Sterodimas.

Buyer Beware

For almost all stem cell products on the market today in the U.S., it is not yet known whether they are safe or effective, despite how they are marketed. There are around 700 clinics in the U.S. offering stem cell treatments and up to 20,000 people have received these therapies. However, the only FDA-approved stem cell treatments use cells from bone marrow or cord blood to treat cancers of the blood and bone marrow. Safety concerns have prompted the FDA to announce increased oversight of stem cell clinics.

As for CAL, most of the clinical trials so far have been focused on using it for breast reconstruction after mastectomy, and results are mixed. Experts warn that the procedure has yet to be proven safe as well as effective. It's important to remember that this newborn science is in the early stages of research.

One question that has also not been definitively settled is whether the transplanted stem cells may give rise to tumors — a risk that is ever-present any time stem cells are used. More research is required to assess the long-term safety and effectiveness of these treatments.

Given the lack of uniform industry standards, one can easily end up at a clinic that overpromises what it can deliver.

In the journal Plastic Reconstruction Surgery in 2014, Adrian McArdle and a team of Stanford University plastic surgeons examined the common claims of CAL's "stem cell facelifts" being offered by clinics across the world. McArdle and his team write: "…the marketplace is characterized by direct-to-consumer corporate medicine strategies that are characterized by unsubstantiated, and sometimes fraudulent claims, that put our patients at risk." Given the lack of uniform industry standards, one can easily end up at a clinic that overpromises what it can deliver.

But according to McArdle, further research on CAL, including clinical trials, is proceeding apace. It's possible that as more research on the potential of stem cells accrues, many of the technical hurdles will be crossed.

If you decide to try CAL in a research or clinical setting, be forewarned. You will be taking part in a young science, with many unknown questions. However, the next time someone offers to sell you stem cells in a jar, you'll know what you're paying for.

Eve Herold
Eve Herold is a science writer specializing in issues at the intersection of science and society. She has written and spoken extensively about stem cell research and regenerative medicine and the social and bioethical aspects of leading-edge medicine. Her 2007 book, Stem Cell Wars, was awarded a Commendation in Popular Medicine by the British Medical Association. Her 2016 book, Beyond Human, has been nominated for the Kirkus Prize in Nonfiction, and a forthcoming book, Robots and the Women Who Love Them, will be released in 2019.