Psychedelics have a reputation for being the drugs of choice for the youth counterculture since their popularization in the mid-twentieth century. Now, with the advent of the so-called “psychedelic renaissance,” marked by a renewed interest in psychedelic therapies among psychiatric professionals, these mind-bending drugs are making their way from the club into the lab. One of the biggest questions on researchers’ minds is whether these drugs might have beneficial effects later in life.
So far, scientists have observed a number of benefits in subjects who use them for therapeutic purposes. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University, for example, have conducted several trials on psilocybin and found that it can be used to help smokers kick their habit and reduce anxiety and depression in those with terminal illnesses. Scientists in Brazil also found that ayahuasca can reduce symptoms of depression, and researchers at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) have shown that MDMA can help treat post-traumatic stress disorder.
Although there is a wealth of research being produced that points to the promise of using psychedelics to treat a variety of mood disorders and addictions, scientists are only just beginning to understand how substances like LSD, psilocybin, ayahuasca and MDMA might be used to make our lives better.
In August, a team of researchers from Central Michigan University published a paper in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement outlining the manifold ways in which psychedelics might be able to improve the aging process—a woefully understudied area in the burgeoning field of psychedelic research. PRØHBTD spoke with Jacob Aday, a PhD student in experimental psychology and the lead author of the paper, to learn more.
How did you become interested in the link between psychedelic therapy and aging?
I’m in an experimental psychology PhD program right now, and I basically have two lines of research. The first is more experimental research, which focuses on peripersonal space and interactions with emotion and attention. Peripersonal space is a cognitive map that represents nearby space [around a living being] and certain attentional and perceptual benefits afforded to that space. We also have a more conceptual line of research, which is about the historiographical and perspective pieces on psychedelic science. I really got interested in that during my history of psychology class a couple of years ago.
How would you describe the state of psychedelic research in the context of aging? Do we know much about it?
We need to delve into the nuances of psychedelic science. We started broad with the field, and studies now are looking into more specific questions of whether they can help these specific populations and how the therapy can be tailored for them. This is a new field. Most of the work on older adults so far has been on end-of-life distress with cancer patients. Some work done with older individuals has shown that it can be implemented in those populations. When I was writing this paper, I realized that the changes documented in recent studies really map onto the changes seen in older adulthood in terms of cognitive and emotional aspects. Hopefully this paper can be a proposal for future research studies, and we can address these questions experimentally.
Your paper is full of examples of the ways in which psychedelics may be able to improve the mood and cognitive abilities of older adults. Were there any particular use cases for psychedelic therapy that you found promising?
The most impressive studies so far in terms of methodological rigor are the Johns Hopkins studies, as they are really strong in terms of being placebo controlled and double blind. Also the trials at New York University on end-of-life distress populations were strong. Other strong studies from that group at Johns Hopkins show changes in openness to experience, which is one of their most reliable findings so far. This has been demonstrated at a few different labs as well. [Being open to experiences] seems to be something that is really lowered in older adults and can lead to a lower quality of life.
As far as the neuroscience of this research on psychedelics is concerned, are these studies showing a physical change in the brains of older adults who take substances like psilocybin?
Neural [functioning] involves a lot of work on serotonin receptors, which are widely distributed in the brain and have many different functions. The neuroimaging work has only demonstrated acute effects so far by looking at people’s neural activity when they’re actually on the drug. There don’t seem to be any structural, long-term studies yet, but it seems like the acute effects can really be linked to the decreases in default mode network activity, which is fundamental for representing our sense of self and is really engaged when we’re thinking about ourselves. That seems to be disengaged when people are on psychedelics, which is perhaps a mechanism that leads to this increased sense of connectedness and ego dissolution. The degree to which that happens has been shown to be a good predictor of therapeutic outcomes.
Is there a particular age when psychedelic therapies seem like they’d be most beneficial in older adults?
It’s really an open question, but a very interesting one we haven’t delved into yet. It seems like it could be viable to give psychedelics to older adults and still cause these affective and cognitive benefits. If you have these cognitive and affective changes earlier, it can help buffer against later downstream effects that are linked to things that psychedelics are shown to change, like creativity, openness and depression. If you can improve those things earlier in life, I think it can lead to many exponential, downstream positive outcomes.
So there’s a reason to believe that taking psychedelics in a therapeutic setting while you’re young might help your mental state when you’re older?
Yes. It’s been shown if you treat conditions like depression earlier, it can slow cognitive decline later in life. Similarly, increasing openness is a predictor of many positive outcomes in later life, so I think there are a lot of reasons why there could be many downstream effects.
You reviewed a lot of previous psychedelic research for this paper. Were there any particular psychedelic substances that you found to be the most promising for therapy with older adults?
That’s another open question we still need to answer. We haven’t really identified the nuances of these different drugs yet fully. Some papers have talked about it conceptually, but there haven’t been many experiments looking at the specific differences between these drugs. It seems like psilocybin is by far [the substance] most used in these trials. It doesn’t seem to have as much stigma as LSD, and it’s generally not as long lasting, so it seems to be the most popular one right now.
Speaking of stigma, what do you think changed to allow these drugs to be researched as potential therapies after a 50-year ban?
It’s changed dramatically in recent years. There’s a lot of debate about what’s really driving this surge in research. My understanding is that it stems from Dr. Rick Strassman’s work in the mid-’90s with DMT. It was really the first study in the new era of psychedelic research. Many people didn’t know what DMT was, and it wasn’t as stigmatized as LSD because people just didn’t have knowledge of it. Once that study got through and people saw we could do psychedelic research safely, the Johns Hopkins group used that support to begin their psilocybin trials. Their first paper showed robust effects. Two-thirds of participants rated it in their top five most meaningful experiences of their lives. That really provided a lot of support to keep the research going, and it’s been snowballing and growing since then.
Are there any ongoing or future studies that you’re aware of that will specifically look at the link between psychedelics and aging?
The Johns Hopkins group is going to be looking at psilocybin and Alzheimer’s disease, so that will investigate the cognitive decline changes I discuss in the paper. That would be the closest thing. I don’t think anyone is looking at administering these to healthy older adults and seeing how these effects generalize to older adults yet.
So if you were handed a lab and unlimited funding to study the link between psychedelics and aging, what would be the first question you’d want to answer?
I would want to answer more unique questions. So far the changes in depression have been pretty well established as well as changes in the openness to experience. I think it would be interesting to dive into some of the lesser studied questions like changes in creativity, which has been shown in some studies, but there still isn’t much experimental work. I think it would be interesting to look at changes in creativity in older adults. Also, just seeing how some of these other affective changes generalize, too, like how meaningful the experience can be and how spiritually significant they are. I think it’d be interesting to generalize this to people with more life experience.
How would you go about studying creativity? How do you measure creativity?
There are a couple of different tests, and there are different types of creativity as well. The two main types are convergent and divergent creativity. Convergent creativity is where you have different pieces of information and bring them together because they have some similarities or you draw some conclusions about them, whereas divergent creativity is where you have one thing and you come up with many uses for it. So sometimes for divergent creativity tests they’ll give you a brick and ask you to come up with as many uses as you can.