The Beckley Foundation’s principal scientific objectives are to investigate the neurophysiology underlying conscious states, and how physiological changes in the brain – that occur with age, meditation, or the ingestion of psychoactive substances – are reflected in changes in our consciousness and cognitive functioning, and how these changes may be beneficial to health and well-being. One of the main purposes of our research is to build an evidence base to inform drug policy decisions, which at the moment is sadly lacking.
The Beckley Foundation has a distinguished Scientific Advisory Board. Over the years, Amanda has developed collaborative partnerships with many of the world’s leading academic institutions, and has an extensive publication list.
We currently have active collaborations with three London Colleges (Imperial, UCL and King’s), and with Johns Hopkins University in Maryland.
Cannabis: reducing harms
Working with Dr Paul Morrison and others at King’s College, the Beckley Foundation is using EEG and fMRI brain-imaging to examine the effects of THC and CBD, the two main active constituents of cannabis. The research shows that THC, the active principle, increases anxiety and short-term psychotic symptoms, while CBD reduces anxiety and protects against psychotic symptoms. Worryingly, modern varieties of illegal street cannabis are genetically selected to be particularly high in THC, with little or no CBD a composition that our research has shown to be especially dangerous.
Another important aspect of harm reduction is to understand individual differences in people’s reactions to drugs. For example, a small minority of people who use cannabis in adolescence will develop a psychotic illness in adulthood. On the other hand, cannabis is statistically considerably safer than, say, alcohol or tobacco. With our colleague Professor Val Curran at UCL, we are initiating a study to examine differences in individuals’ responses to cannabis. Eventually, we aim to extend this study to analyse the genetic causes of these differences. We hope that genetic and biochemical techniques will ultimately allow us to determine which individuals are particularly susceptible to the negative effects of cannabis and should be cautioned against using it.
Psychedelics and brain function
Our scientific studies also investigate, using the latest brain-imaging technology, how psychoactive substances affect brain function, and how this new knowledge can be exploited in the development of novel treatments for medical and psychological disorders.
A particularly fruitful collaboration has been the Beckley Foundation/ Imperial College Psychedelic Research Programme, a partnership between Amanda and Professor David Nutt’s group at Imperial College. In January 2012, key papers were published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA and in the British Journal of Psychiatry, reporting on our brain-imaging research with psilocybin. These studies were the first ever to use the latest fMRI brain-imaging technology to measure changes in cerebral blood flow and brain function during a psychedelic experience in human volunteers.
We found that psilocybin decreases cerebral blood flow, particularly in parts of the brain that serve as ‘connector hubs’ major junctions with numerous connections to other brain regions. These ‘hubs’ maintain efficient communication between different areas of the brain and play an important role in maintaining a stable sense of self. One ‘hub’ region in particular acts by filtering out information, limiting our experience of the world to a manageable and familiar level. By reducing the censoring activity of this region via a reduction in its blood supply, psilocybin allows a freer, less constrained state of awareness to emerge.
The Beckley/Imperial findings raise exciting possibilities for therapeutic uses of psilocybin. Another of the ‘hub’ regions, the medial prefrontal cortex, is known to be chronically over-active in depression. Since psilocybin suppresses the activity of this region by reducing blood-flow, it could be a useful new treatment for depression. On the basis of our findings, the Medical Research Council has awarded a large grant for a clinical trial of psilocybin in severely depressed patients.
Another region (the hypothalamus), over-active in the agonising condition of cluster headaches, also has its activity suppressed by psilocybin via a reduction in blood supply. Psilocybin is therefore a potentially valuable new treatment for this debilitating and intractable condition.
The research study also investigated the effects of psilocybin on memory recall by asking volunteers to recall events in their lives after taking psilocybin or an inactive placebo. Psilocybin engendered extremely vivid and lifelike memories. The subjective experience corresponded with an activation of brain regions involved in vision and other sensory and emotional processing. The findings explain why people trapped by repressed trauma may find psilocybin a valuable adjunct to psychotherapy in allowing them to access and work through distant memories.
In collaboration with Professor Roland Griffiths’ group at Johns Hopkins, we are harnessing the potent psychological effects of a psychedelic in the treatment of addiction. In this case, we are using psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy to treat intractable nicotine addiction, a particularly difficult addiction to overcome. The results of the pilot study are remarkable, with all the participants so far remaining long-term abstinent. Although this Beckley collaboration is the first study in modern times to use a psychedelic in the treatment of addiction, it follows a tradition of such research in the 1950s and ‘60s.
After 14 years of work, the Beckley Foundation is finally achieving breakthroughs in this important field of research, which has been taboo because of the illegal status of psychoactive substances. In the next few years we hope and expect to open up many novel pathways to treatment of the ills of modern man.