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Psilocybin, a chemical found in psychedelic mushrooms, and LSD may be effective in treating cluster headaches, according to a team of researchers that includes psychiatry professor John H. Halpern.
Their research, which was published two years ago, has recently received additional press attention from newspapers like The Independent, a London-based daily.
Though low in toxicity and non-addictive, psilocybin and LSD are illegal due to their mind-altering effects, including distortion of judgment and psychosis.
But due to the seriousness of cluster headaches, Halpern has said that the benefits of using the drugs “clearly outweigh the risks.”
This [cluster headache] is a seriously debilitating condition,” Halpern said in a recent interview with The Independent. “Your jaw drops at what people go through.”
Halpern, along with researchers R. Andrew Sewell and Harrison G. Pope ’69, published their results in the journal Neurology.
They concluded that “psilocybin and LSD may be effective in treating cluster attacks, possibly by a mechanism that is unrelated to their hallucinogenic properties.”
“This report,” they added, “should not be misinterpreted as an endorsement of the use of illegal substances for self-treatment of cluster headache.”
Halpern has also conducted a study on the hallucinogen peyote, used in some Native American religious ceremonies, concluding that there are no adverse effects from the drug.
He is currently studying the effects of MDMA, or ecstasy, on helping terminally-ill cancer patients with anxiety.
Cluster headaches, which are distinct from migraines, affect about one in every 1,000 people.
Men are four times as likely as women to suffer from cluster headaches, often dubbed “suicide headaches.”
Occurring cyclically, attacks are either episodic or chronic.
Episodic patients suffer usually within a “cluster period” lasting anywhere from a week to a year, after which a remission occurs.
The researchers wrote that their study began when a patient with episodic cluster headaches contacted them, reporting remission from attacks after using LSD recreationally.
The headaches returned when he stopped using LSD, so he began ingesting psilocybin mushrooms every three months, effectively extending his remission.
The study consisted of Internet surveys of hundreds of cluster headache patients found through online cluster headache groups.
Fifty-three patients were ultimately interviewed based on their agreement to be evaluated and to provide medical records.
Of the 32 subjects with episodic cluster headache, 19 subjects used psilocybin during attacks.
Seventeen of them found it to be effective in stopping attacks.
Twenty subjects used psilocybin during remission periods with 19 reporting an extension of their remission, while four of the five subjects who used LSD reported an extension.
The researchers acknowledged that their results are preliminary.
And because of the nature of the therapy, the study lacks basic experimental controls.
Its results are subject to recall and selection bias, in addition to lacking the standard double-blind control.
For recent research, faculty profiles, and a look at the issues facing Harvard scientists, check out The Crimson's science page.
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