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Ayahuasca retreats associated with increases in nature-relatedness

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Ayahuasca retreat associated with increases in nature-relatedness

A new proof-of-concept pilot study by Onaya Science found that participation in ayahuasca retreats carried out in a traditional Indigenous Amazonian context was associated with significant increases in nature-relatedness.

As highlighted by the research team, anecdotal accounts of ayahuasca experiences commonly describe strong feelings of interconnection with nature. 

“Nature relatedness” – a measure of a person’s relationship with nature – has been linked to improvements in mental and physical health. 

The authors write: “Human connection to nature is being increasingly eroded, partly through increasing urbanisation and a loss of green space, meaning increasing numbers of people are inhabiting nature-depleted environments. This is coupled with shifts in individual behavioural factors such as a greater predominance of more indoor-based sedentary lifestyles and lessened childhood play opportunities outdoors. 

See also  New report analyses amount of people drinking ayahuasca worldwide

“This can result in a diminished potential for everyday interactions with nature or an ‘extinction of experience’, and it has been suggested that this reduced capacity for nature contact and connection has detrimental implications for health, well-being, and propensity towards experiencing positive emotions.” 

The team, led by Simon Ruffell and Sam Gandy, emphasises that, while there is a range of nature-relatedness enhancing interventions such as nature immersion retreats, these may vary in their effectiveness and there is a need for reliable interventions.

Within the context of traditional Amazonian use, ayahuasca practices are deeply rooted in nature and can play a vital role in environmental decision-making. 

Ayahuasca and nature-relatedness

For the study, published in Drug Science, Policy and Law, a group of 43 participants took part in questionnaires both before and after participating in six Amazonian-led ayahuasca retreats at the Ayahuasca Foundation (AF).

The results showed that attendance at the retreats was associated with significant increases in nature-relatedness. Additionally, the team found retreat attendance was associated with improvements in depression and stress, but, not in anxiety. 

The team wrote: “Furthermore, a significant negative correlation with moderate effect size was found between changes in nature-relatedness and stress, suggesting that an increase in nature-relatedness is associated with decreased stress levels after attending Amazonian ayahuasca retreats in our sample.”

However, the team highlights that it is currently not clear whether these reported changes are due to consumption of ayahuasca, or due to the nature-based setting of the retreat. 

“Although this pilot study suggests a potential therapeutic role for Amazonian ayahuasca retreats as a multidimensional intervention, further work is required to assess the role of possible mediators underlying such shifts, while evaluating to what extent these are sustained for long term,” the team writes, suggesting that the findings demonstrate the potential of ayahuasca retreats as a multidimensional intervention that could evoke significant changes in a variety of domains.

The current study did not assess long-term nature-relatedness, however, previous research suggests psychedelic experiences may improve nature-relatedness for up to two years.

Limitations of the study are noted, such as a lack of control group, and factors that may have influenced outcomes. For example, the retreats require participants to disconnect from technology, which may have contributed to feelings of connection with nature, and the inability to carry out constituent analysis of the brew, preventing the comparison of outcomes to the levels of DMT and harmala alkaloids ingested.

Speaking to Psychedelic Health, Gandy commented: “Further research should seek to elucidate to what degree the shift in people’s connection to nature is sustained and reflected in life changes, further explore the specific factors that mediate this shift (i.e. the Amazonian rainforest retreat setting, the Indigenous shamanic context, the ‘digital detox’ or the direct pharmacodynamic effects of ayahuasca) and how it might be enhanced.

“Also, further work warranted exploring the possible additive benefits of a collective, nature-based Indigenous context vs the individualised clinical context: The potential synergistic or additive benefits of the nature-rich Amazonian rainforest retreat setting and other contextual factors such as the disconnection from technology and the nature-orientated shamanic context in influencing nature relatedness in comparison to a Western clinical context warrants further research attention.”

The team concluded: “Whilst our data suggest nature relatedness could be related to changes in mental health outcomes such as stress, our modest, uncontrolled sample does not allow for the generalisation of results. Future studies with larger samples and long-term follow up will shed more light on the initial findings presented in this pilot study.”

The team now plans to run an ‘ayahuasca-free’ retreat following the same structure as a regular ayahuasca retreat but without the ayahuasca brew to investigate the phenomenon while controlling variables.

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Study identifies MDMA variants that could make therapy safer

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Study identifies MDMA variants that could make therapy safer

A new study from MedUni Vienna has identified three new variants of MDMA as promising alternatives for safer use in a controlled psychotherapeutic setting.

The recent blow to MDMA therapy from the FDA’s Psychopharmacologic Drugs Advisory Committee (PDAC) has put a dampener on many people’s hopes that the treatment would be approved this August.

While that still may happen, one of the major concerns of the advisory body was the compound’s safety data, and the PDAC has advised that Lykos has not collected enough safety data on the molecule in its trials so far.

See also  FDA MDMA therapy advice may be a setback, but it is not the end of the road

Despite this setback in the US, countries such as Canada and Australia have increased legal access to MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD in recent years.

However, there are concerns about the safety profile of the drug due to its side effects such as tachycardia, high blood pressure, and liver and nerve damage despite promising studies.

Safer alternatives

Now, published in the Journal of Neurochemistry, an international research team led by Harald Sitte at MedUni Vienna’s Center for Physiology and Pharmacology has identified three new variants of MDMA as promising alternatives for safer use.

According to the team, the variants – ODMA, TDMA and SeDMA – have been developed to retain the positive effects of MDMA while reducing negative effects.

The studies suggest that the variants impact structures in the brain such as serotonin and dopamine in a similar way to MDMA, but unlike MDMA, they have lower activity at certain serotonin receptors.

Study lead Harald Sitte stated: “This allows the conclusion that both the acute and long-term side effects of ODMA, TDMA and SeDMA may be lower than those of the conventional substance.”

“Since the MDMA analogues also have a weaker interaction with certain transport proteins in the body that are responsible for the absorption and excretion of drugs, the risk of interactions with other drugs could also be reduced,” added first author, Ana Sofia Alberto-Silva.

Sitte continued: “Our experimental results showed that the new variants can retain the therapeutic potential of the conventional substance, but are likely to cause fewer side effects.

“This could advance the controlled use of psychoactive substances in neuropsychiatric illness.”

The authors wrote: “Our findings suggest that these new MDMA bioisosteres might constitute appealing therapeutic alternatives to MDMA, sparing the primary pharmacological activity at hSERT, hDAT, and hNET, but displaying a reduced activity at 5-HT2A/2B/2C receptors and alternative hepatic metabolism. Whether these MDMA bioisosteres may pose lower risk alternatives to the clinically re-emerging MDMA warrants further studies.”

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Is connection key? How clinicians impact patient outcomes in psychedelic therapy

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A wealth of research is showing how psychedelic-assisted therapy holds promise for the treatment of mental health conditions such as depression, but what role does the therapist play in a patient’s outcome? A new study has suggested it may be a big one.

Psychedelics have piqued huge interest due to their effects on the brain. Research points to their ability to induce neuroplasticity in the brain as one of the key reasons they may help with conditions such as depression and anxiety.

However, set – the individual’s (or patient’s) mental state – and setting – the individual’s environment during a psychedelic experience – are hugely impactful on the outcome of these experiences.

In the traditional use of psychedelic medicines, shamans help to guide set and setting throughout the experience with singing, drumming and ritual. Today, in scientific research, trials, and in clinics, the clinician is essentially playing this role.

Senior author of a new study, Alan Davis, associate professor and director of the Center for Psychedelic Drug Research and Education in The Ohio State University College of Social Work, has highlighted that the impact of clinicians on patient outcomes is not new, with research consistently showing that a trusting relationship between patients and clinicians has been key to better outcomes. This concept is known as a “therapeutic alliance”.

Understanding the therapeutic alliance

To find out more about the impact of this therapeutic alliance in psychedelic therapy, researchers from Ohio State University College of Medicine analysed data from a clinical trial that investigated psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy for the treatment of major depressive disorder (MDD).

In the trial, participants received two doses of psilocybin and 11 hours of psychotherapy, completing a therapeutic alliance questionnaire afterward, which assessed the strength of the therapist-participant relationship.

Participants also completed questionnaires about any mystical and psychologically insightful experiences they had during the drug treatment sessions. In psychedelic research, the mystical experience has often been shown to be related to the continuing positive effects of this therapy.

The Ohio team looked at the depression outcomes alongside patient reports about their experiences with the medicines as well as their connection with their therapists.

They found that a stronger relationship between patient and clinician led to a better clinical outcome for the patient – with improved depression scores up to 12 months following the experience.

Lead author Adam Levin, a psychiatry and behavioral health resident at Ohio State University College of Medicine, stated: “What persisted the most was the connection between the therapeutic alliance and long-term outcomes, which indicates the importance of a strong relationship.”

Analysis results revealed that over time, the alliance score increased, and in fact demonstrated more acute mystical experiences for the patient. The team also found that acute effects were linked to lower depression four weeks following treatment, but were not associated with better depression outcomes a year after the trial.

“The mystical experience, which is something that is most often reported as related to outcome, was not related to the depression scores at 12 months,” Davis stated.

“We’re not saying this means acute effects aren’t important – psychological insight was still predictive of improvement in the long term. But this does start to situate the importance and meaning of the therapeutic alliance alongside these more well-established effects that people talk about.”

According to the team, the analysis showed that a stronger relationship during the final therapy preparation session predicted a more mystical and psychologically insightful experience – which in turn was linked to further strengthening the therapeutic alliance.

“That’s why I think the relationship has been shown to be impactful in this analysis – because, really, the whole intervention is designed for us to establish the trust and rapport that’s needed for someone to go into an alternative consciousness safely,” Davis stated.

“This isn’t a case where we should try to fit psychedelics into the existing psychiatric paradigm – I think the paradigm should expand to include what we’re learning from psychedelics,” Levin added.

“Our concern is that any effort to minimise therapeutic support could lead to safety concerns or adverse events. And what we showed in this study is evidence for the importance of the alliance in not just preventing those types of events, but also in optimizing therapeutic outcomes.”

The authors emphasised that efforts to minimise negative experiences in future studies of psychedelics is vital, and that therapy is critical to creating a supportive environment for patients.

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Phase 2a trial to investigate 5-MeO-DMT candidate for alcohol use disorder

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Beckley Psytech and Clerkenwell Health are collaborating on a Phase 2a trial investigating Beckley’s synthetic 5-MeO-DMT candidate combined with psychological support as a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD).

AUD is estimated to affect around 237 million people across the globe and over 7.5 million people in the UK.

Treatment options for the harmful use of alcohol are not always effective – there are high relapse rates and there are around three million deaths each year attributed to the substance’s misuse.

Increasing research is showing that psychedelics may hold promise as innovative treatments for addiction, including substances such as ketamine and psilocybin.

See also  How psychedelics could help those living with alcohol use disorders

BPL-003 is Beckley Psytech’s short-duration and fast-acting synthetic formulation of 5-MeO-DMT – a psychedelic found in several plant species and the glands of at least one toad species – which is administered intranasally via an FDA-approved delivery device.

The compound has shown in Phase I data to be well-tolerated with a reproducible and dose-linear pharmacokinetic profile.

The Phase 2a trial

Beckley and Clerkenwell have confirmed that the collaborative Phase 2a open-label trial will evaluate the safety, tolerability and pharmacodynamic effects of a single dose of Beckley BPL-003 combined with abstinence-oriented psychological support in participants with AUD.

Currently taking place at King’s College London, Clerkenwell Health’s clinic near Harley Street, London, will provide an additional trial site.

According to Beckley, BPL-003 has been successful in eliciting psychedelic experiences of “similar intensity but shorter duration than psilocybin”.

Dr Henry Fisher, Chief Scientific Officer at Clerkenwell Health, stated: “An estimated 600,000 people are dependent on alcohol in England. This, coupled with an alarming increase in alcohol-related deaths of 89% over the past 20 years, shows the status quo isn’t working.

“Conventional treatments for alcohol dependency aren’t producing meaningful improvements and new avenues must be explored. This trial will assess whether psychedelic-assisted treatment can be an effective therapy for alcohol use disorder, with the hope of rolling out the treatment widely.

“Health professionals and policymakers should seriously consider such treatments, which could be genuinely ground-breaking for the NHS and for the hundreds of thousands of people being treated for alcohol use disorder in the UK.”

Beckley Psytech and Clerkenwell have emphasised that the results of the trial may be used to provide support for further study of psychedelic-assisted treatment for alcohol dependency.

Dr Rob Conley, Chief Medical and Scientific Officer at Beckley Psytech, added: “We’re committed to developing a transformative and effective treatment option for individuals struggling with alcohol use disorder.

“Based on our preclinical and Phase I data, we are optimistic about the potential therapeutic benefits of BPL-003 for substance use disorders and we are excited to evaluate the compound further in this clinical trial.

“I want to extend my thanks to the team at Clerkenwell Health and King’s, as well as to the patients who have joined, and will join, this study. Their participation, support and collaboration are absolutely critical to furthering research into this area of huge unmet need.”

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Psychedelic Health is a journalist-led news site. Any views expressed by interviewees or commentators do not reflect our own. We do not provide medical advice or promote the personal use of psychedelic compounds. Please seek professional medical advice if you are concerned about any of the issues raised.

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