“I had the complete mysterious revelation experience – the great psychedelic multicolored light and sound show.”
This is how Steve remembers his first dose of a hallucinogenic drug, psilocybin, the psychedelic compound found in magic mushrooms.
His experience was part of a clinical trial that some scientists call a major step towards a revolution in the treatment of depression. It is an experiment complicated by the fact that the substance it is testing is illegal. Psilocybin is a Scheme 1-controlled substance; its use is very strictly regulated.
Part of the definition of a Schedule 1 drug is that it is not used medically. But this experiment, which scanned the participants’ brains after their treatment with psychedelics, drew an extraordinary physical picture of the effect and experience. The brain scans showed “more connection” between different brain regions.
The researchers say their findings show how hallucinogens break a depressed person “out of a trace of negative thinking” – that psilocybin “reintegrates” a depressed brain, making it more fluid, flexible and connected.
So how does it feel to have your brain reintegrated with psychedelic drugs?
“It’s an indescribable experience – words like the ones we use now are just not enough,” Steve told BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science.
“With the first dose, I felt joy that I have never experienced – and more like myself than I have ever felt.”
But the second dose in the trial, he said, was very dark.
Steve, now in his 60s, was diagnosed with depression more than 30 years ago.
Traditional antidepressants simply did not work for him.
These existing drugs work by increasing the level of a chemical called serotonin in the brain. It is one of the chemical messengers that transmits signals from one part of the brain to another; low serotonin has been associated with depression since the 1960s.
But while antidepressants that “correct” that serotonin imbalance stunned Steve’s lows – lows that he said could often make him feel like his life was completely worthless – they also dampened the heights.
“[When I was taking those drugs] there was just no color – no joy in my life.
“You end up living like a functional zombie.”
Steve made the difficult decision to get rid of the drugs. He continued his long-term regime of meditation, yoga and running, which he says has helped him deal with his depression all these years.
But when he heard an interview on the radio about a new lawsuit investigating the use of psychedelic drugs for depression, he called to sign up.
“I had to wait a year and the selection criteria were very strict.”
Participants should not only show that other antidepressants had not been successful in treating their depression, but that they did not have other conditions, including psychosis, that could make the use of psychedelics particularly risky.
Eventually, after careful examination and under the supervision of a professional therapist, Steve received his first dose of psilocybin.
“It felt wonderful,” he remembered. “I felt more connected to myself – it was extraordinary.
“It took from not knowing myself at all to having a sense of what my place was in the larger context.”
What Steve felt has been shown in brain scans.
Images of participants’ brains before and after a dose of “magic mushroom juice” showed what lead researcher Prof David Nutt of the Imperial Center for Psychedelic Research described as a brain reset.
The images showed that psychedelics induced a connection in which different regions of the brain communicated much more with each other, revealing new ways of thinking.
“I had no conscious feeling that my brain was ‘distorted’, but there was certainly a lot more going on there than I could have ever imagined,” Steve said.
However, his second experience with psilocybin was much more difficult.
“I had to struggle with the feelings and emotions that I tend to suppress.
“So the second session, even though it was hard work, was probably therapeutically more useful because I had to deal with the things that I just hadn’t dealt with before.
Prof Nutt fights for these illegal drugs to be reclassified for research purposes, to make experiments like his less legally complicated – and to enable what he says could be a revolution in the treatment of depression.
But the drug, stressed both Steve and Prof. Cute, is not some magic antidepressant bullet.
In the trial, the treatment was combined with professional therapy. Ongoing work at the Center for Psychedelic Research and elsewhere is focused on developing and safely testing new therapeutic protocols, ways to combine drug therapy with therapy to treat depression in a new way.
“The drug gives us part of a healing process. It exposes you to different possibilities – a different way of being,” Steve said.
The right work, he says, starts after the experience and needs a therapist’s guidance to make it meaningful.
“It’s one thing to develop a drug, but we need protocols to help people like me,” Steve said.
“But I did not want to change the experience for anything – it was wonderful – and I never expect to experience anything like it again.”
Hear Steve’s interview with Victoria and more about the experiment with psychedelic drugs BBC Inside Science on BBC Sounds.