About an hour outside Halifax, tucked away behind the Hants Community Hospital in Windsor, N.S., workers in a small facility are growing their own magic mushrooms and synthesizing what makes them magic: psilocybin.
Its operators, Halucenex Life Sciences Inc., are also in the midst of the province’s first clinical trial using the psychoactive substance psilocybin — something researchers hope will demonstrate the safeness and efficacy of using it to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.
“We’re really excited about seeing the data that comes out of this and the effects it’s going to have on PTSD, I really think it could give people the big reset that they need to move forward in life,” said David James, chief science officer for Halucenex, which is funding and conducting the trial.
James says 1,500 people have applied from all over the world to be part of this study, which shows the huge demand for effective psychological treatments. Only 20 were chosen for the study and the company plans to share its results with Health Canada.
“We’re hoping that the data that we receive from this critical clinical trial is efficacious enough to show all Canada that it does work, it’s safe, and hopefully, move the sector forward to help more people.”
Individuals with PTSD often show increased reactivity in the amygdala, a part of the brain connected to memory and emotions. That activity may make it harder to process traumatic memories.
Some research has shown that psilocybin, the psychedelic compound found in magic mushrooms, can reduce activity in the amygdala when people respond to threats. This means patients with PTSD could reduce anxiety and inappropriate responses by taking it.
Other health-care practitioners say more research is needed.
Health Canada notes research is continuing, but there are no approved therapeutic psilocybin products and also warns of risks.
“For individuals predisposed to or with existing psychiatric conditions, there may be an elevated risk of side effects. This association is still being evaluated,” it says on its website.
The trial, which began earlier this month and is scheduled to wrap March 2023, involves administering a synthesized version of psilocybin to 20 patients. The group is made up of doctors, therapists, veterans and first responders, all diagnosed with PTSD.
The trial permits participants to take psilocybin, which is considered an illegal substance under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, in a safe and supervised setting.
Patients will initially take a 10-milligram dose, known as a microdose. They’ll come back a week later and take a macrodose of 25 milligrams.
Typically, a macro dose, often called a “hero dose” by those in the psychedelic community, means consuming five grams of mushrooms or more, and feeling the effects for five to eight hours. These effects include seeing, hearing or feeling things that are not there. Some may also experience anxiety, fear, nausea and muscle twitches accompanied by increased heart rate and blood pressure.
“[Twenty-five milligrams], that’s enough to kind of do what we’re hoping to do, which is a kind of a whole mental reset for PTSD,” said James, who also has a PhD in chemistry.
Though none of the trial participants were available to speak on the subject, Don Hunter, senior vice-president of business development for the company, says he experienced psilocybin treatment this past summer.
After months of research and years of trying other PTSD treatments, Hunter made the choice to consume psilocybin tea at a facility in Costa Rica.
The hallucinogenic affect made him feel like he was literally digging through his trauma and blocked thoughts.
“I was chipping through a wall, but still didn’t know where I was going,” said Hunter when describing what it felt like to be on a psilocybin “trip.”
Eventually after hours of “digging,” he said he felt as though he had emerged on the other side of the wall and was able to stand face to face with thoughts he had purposely repressed.
“I don’t want to say this is a silver bullet because I do believe there is a need to further your treatment.… The big thing is, besides … really changing my mindset and being reactionary … it also allowed me to have a different mindset when it came to listening to others and being more compassionate with others.”
Nurse Brenda Perks will help guide trial participants through their psychedelic experience. She says bad experiences are often dependent on the environment and what form of psilocybin is taken.
“Recreational trips that are unguided and unsupported, you don’t know what you’re taking, you don’t know what strain you’re taking. Different strains have different strengths.… In this setting, we eliminate the fears of the bad trips, so to speak, because you’re guided, it’s all in a controlled setting,” said Perks, who has been a nurse in varying medical settings for 35 years.
Psilocybe cubensis is the most common type of magic mushroom, but there are nearly 100 different strains.
She said this trial will be Nova Scotia’s formal introduction to the therapeutic effects of psychedelics. She hopes such research will eventually lead to their legalization.
“By doing the trials, we’re hoping to remove the fears and anxieties around so-called psychedelic drugs…that’s what we’re hoping to gain is more support around that so that we can remove some old ways of thinking around psychedelics.”