Conference Report: Interdisciplinary Conference on Psychedelic Research, October 6-7 2012

Today Points welcomes Netherlander guest blogger Wim Best, PharmD. and registered toxicologist (ERT). He started his career in the pharmaceutical industry and has held positions both in Quality Assurance and Control and Regulatory Affairs. He now works for the Healthcare Inspectorate of the Dutch governmen, where he is responsible for controlled substances. Since 2009 he has been active as a forensic toxicologist dealing with crimes possibly committed under the influence of drugs or medicinal products, and since 2010 he has served as an honorary investigator at Maastricht University, Faculty of Psychology, Dept. of Psychopharmacology.

A hundred years after the first International Opium Convention in The Hague and the discovery of MDMA in Germany, Amsterdam hosted the Third Interdisciplinary Conference on Psychedelic Research organized by the OPEN Foundation. The conference lasted two days, during which speakers and public discussed research, experiences, new ideas and philosophical approaches.

Founding (Freakin’) Father, Albert Hofman

Before I start about the conference, let me introduce the OPEN Foundation. OPEN is an interdisciplinary initiative, started around 2006, the year Albert Hofmann celebrated his 100th birthday. Its aim is to stimulate research regarding all facets of the psychedelic experience.  How?  Well, by organizing lectures and conferences and spreading honest information on both the potential and the risks of psychedelics. Furthermore the foundation hopes to lessen the stigma that is still part of researching psychedelics and hopes to awaken the interest of researchers. And last but not least it wants to create a virtual meeting place for all students that are interested in doing research.

For the latest Interdisciplinary Conference on Psychedelic Research the OPEN Foundation offered a warm atmosphere to both established investigators and rising researchers. Other interested parties, such as the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research, and Science (ICEERS) who contributed with a clinical track on plant based products and their possible uses in mental health, were also welcome to add their knowledge and experience. Paraphrasing Zinberg: “It is all about drugs, set and setting.”

Setting and Set

The setting: the spiritual ambiance of the Moses and Aäronkerk, a beautiful 19th century church in the center of Amsterdam, spiced up by the introductory lecture by Wouter Hanegraaff titled “Entheogens and Contemporary Religion.” High is in the air!  The set: around 400 people of various backgrounds, interested in psychedelics. Neuroscientists, clinicians, anthropologists, philosophers and users joined forces to open up new ways in the field of psychedelic research.  The drugs: psychedelics.

Let me give you an overview of the sessions I attended. My first conference day started with “Psychedelics and Religion.” Matthew Johnson (John Hopkins, Boston, USA) gave an excellent overview on the work they did with psilocybin, not only in inducing mystical experiences, but also in altering personality (increasing openness of people) and the therapeutic use in sufferers of headache. And there is more to come. In the session on “Neuropharmacology of Psychedelics” Robin Carhart-Harris (Imperial College London, UK) discussed neuro-imaging studies with psilocybin and MDMA. He works together with David Nutt and their aim is not only a better understanding of how the brain is influenced by all sorts of substances but also to improve current pharmacotherapy in psychiatry. Torsten Passie (Harvard, USA and Hannover, Germany) continued with a lecture on the effects of laughing gas on consciousness. He started with the history of this old and very simple molecule, to continue with his own experiences. Yes, indeed, he was one of the volunteers in the performed study, making his story more vivid and coming much closer to one’s imagination than just a simple description of a trial.

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The session continued on the second day with David Erritzoe (Imperial College, London, UK), who guided us through a number of advanced brain imaging techniques, using MDMA as a model substrate. He was followed by Ruud Kortekaas (Groningen, the Netherlands), who described a study on the use of ketamine in treatment resistant major depressive disorder. He spoke with such enthousiasm that we were really looking forward to see his results, as it would be quite a breakthrough project. Ketamine promises to have an almost instantaneous effect on patients and less chance of suicide risk. But alas, the study turned out to be merely a proposal for a study, still facing the problem of financing.

The next session I attended was organized by ICEERS, an organization promoting research and education of ethnobotanicals like ayahuasca and ibogaine. The session was unfortunately quite chaotic. The lecture on ayahuasca jumped from ancient tradition to criminalization in specific countries. This last point surprised me, by the way, as the plant material as such is not forbidden under the international convention on psychotropic substances, a point of view also stressed by the International Narcotics Control Board. Nevertheless some governments and courts obviously made their own decisions. The speaker on ibogaine discussed its use in addicted persons. Unfortunately it was hardly scientific, mixing up iboga (the bark of the root of Tabernanthe Iboga) and its major active ingredient ibogaine. If one wants to do research in the field of addiction medicine then a well-defined product is a priority, I would think. The last lecture of this session dealt with the metabolism of DMT. New findings in human test subjects (a N-oxide metabolite) were discussed. Earlier research showed that this compound in plants was only an artefact during analytical work.

On Sunday, early in the morning, my first lecture of the day was ”Psychedelics in Healthcare.” Ben Sessa (UK) gave an excellent overview of the possible use of MDMA for post-traumatic stress disorder. More controlled studies would pave the way for the use of some psychedelics in tomorrow’s psychiatry.

3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine

The last session I attended was “Psychedelic research in practice.” It started with David Luke (Greenwich, UK) describing work on synaesthesia and psychedelics. Using an online survey he tried to map synaesthesia against neurochemical principles–a great example of how various sciences could mutually enhance knowledge in the field of neuroscience.  This was followed by the lecture of Raph Borges on underground entheogenic research. The first part of his lecture was dealing with analytical work on possible psycho-active drugs, almost a motion of distrust against analytical science as we know it, re-inventing the wheel. The second part dealt with the use of community participation in sharing knowledge, information and ideas.

What didn’t I attend: Sessions on Ayahuasca research, Philosophy and Psychedelics, MDMA research and Psychedelics and the humanities.The website gives more details on speakers and lectures. It’s safe to say that the public isn’t yet aware of the possibilities of psychedelics. The political and social climate makes it that much harder to ask questions about psychedelics, or whom to approach with your questions in the first place. Obstacles that researchers in psychedelics face are lack of funding, aversive behavior in society and problems with legislation. Meetings like this third ICPR are essential to closing the gap between public and science.