Psychedelic medicine is hot right now—or regulatory agencies seem to be warming up to the idea, at least. Over the last few years, the FDA has begun to approve (and even fast-track) clinical trials examining the impact of substances like ketamine, psilocybin, and MDMA on mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder and major depressive disorder. In addition to contributing to the growing body of research that suggests traditionally “recreational” drugs may have serious medicinal value, these trials also serve as a signal that there will likely be money to be made off psychedelic medicine in America’s distinctly for-profit healthcare system, and that opportunity to cash in could arise sooner rather than later. True to form, some Silicon Valley innovators have already started to stake their claims in the market, which tracks, given the close associations between startup culture and psychedelics vis-à-vis microdosing.
JR Rahn, the founder of MindMed, a startup aiming to treat addiction with psychedelic medicine, said the rise of microdosing inspired him to found the company in an interview with Fast Company this week. One aspect of the microdosing trend that the company is looking to capitalize on within psychedelic medicine is the elimination or minimization of hallucinatory effects (aka tripping). According to Fast Company, MindMed purchased a patented derivative of ibogaine (a “psychoactive alkaloid” that a handful of researchers from the 1960s onward have found promising in reducing addiction-related cravings) in September in order to push it through clinical trials. The derivative’s main benefit: It has none of the pure substance's hallucinatory effects, but should pack the same addiction-suppressing punch that ibogaine has gained internet fame for.
The buzzy, (allegedly) productivity-boosting hum of a microdose and trip-free treatment like MindMed’s ibogaine derivative may be attractive to patients who don’t have psychedelic experience (or 10 to 12 hours to burn), but some scientists think tripping could be an essential part of the psychedelic healing process. Researchers are still looking at whether engineering the trip out of the drugs could actually decrease psychedelic medicine's effectiveness in treating conditions like depression and PTSD. “There’s a huge interplay between contextual factors and the experience people have, and there seems to be a very strong relationship with the quality of people’s experiences and the psychological outcome, from a clinical perspective," neuroscientist and psychedelic medical researcher Chris Timmermann told VICE in November. Basically, scientists still don’t know whether patients need to trip in order to reap the full rewards of psychedelic medicine, or if the psychological and neurochemical benefits will remain once hallucinations are taken out of the equation, and some say there’s reason to believe that tripping is an impactful part of the process.
The desire to decouple psychedelic medicine and recreational psychedelic use is understandable, especially when it comes to treating mental illnesses related to substance use. But as enterprising startups (and their capital) enter the conversation, it’s important to ensure that scientists’ concerns that some of the healing power of psychedelics could get lost in a clinical setting aren’t overlooked.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Katie Way on Twitter.