‘I get two or three people writing to me every day,’ says Robin Carhart-Harris (pictured), sitting in an empty faculty lobby in west London – everyone else went home for the night hours ago. ‘In fact, a guy turned up today and asked to speak to me because he wanted to volunteer for the research.’ He smiles ruefully. ‘That’s happened a few times, actually.’
There can’t be many studies that get so much interest from the public. But then, there aren’t many studies where participants get to take mind-expanding drugs. Carhart-Harris heads up Imperial College’s Psychedelic Research Group, which looks into how the controversial substances work in the brain and what their clinical uses might be. After a pilot study last year, which showed that two doses of psilocybin – the psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms – led to lasting positive changes in patients with major depression who hadn’t responded to normal treatments, he and his team are now carrying out a groundbreaking trial comparing the effectiveness of a six-week course of escitalopram, a leading antidepressant, with a single dose of psilocybin. The results have the potential to turn the way we approach mental illness on its head.
‘It’s a radically different treatment model’
‘It’s a radically different treatment model,’ says Carhart-Harris. He’s casual in jeans and a cardigan, but chooses his words carefully – LSD has been a political bogeyman since the 1970s, and magic mushrooms are a Class A substance, putting them in the same category as heroin and crack cocaine. But despite the stigma, recreational users have been building up a body of anecdotal evidence suggesting that a trip – even a bad one – can boost feelings of optimism and creativity long after the immediate effects have worn off. That’s where neuroscience comes in.
‘This idea of depressive realism is a bit of a myth – people aren’t seeing the world as it really is when they’re thoroughly depressed, they’re seeing it in a delusional way,’ explains Carhart-Harris. Over time these patterns of mental activity become reinforced, like well-trodden paths. Enter psychedelics, which loosen up the brain’s communication pathways, creating a ‘hyperplastic state’ in which new ones can, in theory, be forged. One of the volunteers in the Psychedelic Research Group’s last psilocybin study said his brain had been ‘rebooted’; another said he felt he’d been ‘defragged’ like a hard drive. Carhart-Harris’s subjects are looked after by trained therapists, who help them to make sense of everything. The psychoactive compound, he emphasises, isn’t a magic bullet – he sees it as an adjunct to talk therapy, speeding it up and putting breakthroughs within easier reach.
Carhart-Harris never thought he’d work in a lab. After finishing his psychology degree, he was studying for a master’s in psychoanalysis at Brunel when he started to wonder whether drugs could prove the existence of the unconscious. On a visit to the library, he stumbled across a book by Czech psychiatrist Stanislav Grof called Realms of the Human Unconscious: Observations from LSD Research, which suggested the drug could be a powerful tool for the exploration of the human mind. ‘I was just so convinced that this was what I needed to dedicate my life to,’ he remembers.
‘It’s about revelation, self-understanding and connection’
Back then, there was only really one person doing serious research in the field: David Nutt at the University of Bristol (later sacked as Gordon Brown’s drug tsar after he suggested cannabis, ecstasy and LSD were arguably less harmful than tobacco and alcohol). Carhart-Harris asked if he could come and do a PhD with him. ‘I never really doubted I’d be able to do it – which looking back was quite naive,’ he laughs. He was turned down for funding and pulled pints to support himself, but after moving to Imperial, he made headlines in 2014 when he became the first UK scientist in 40 years to scan the brains of volunteers who’d been given LSD.
Not everybody is excited about his work. He still hits stumbling blocks with grant applications, and when he talks to neuroscientists, some of them ‘scoff’. A lot of it, he thinks, is fear – of psychoactive compounds themselves, because of misconceptions that they’re inherently dangerous (used under expert supervision they have an excellent safety profile), but also of what they might unearth. ‘This idea that there’s much more to our minds than we’re conscious of sometimes thrills people, and sometimes really scares them.’ But slowly, big-hitters are getting on board – especially psychiatrists. ‘They genuinely want to help their patients,’ Carhart-Harris says. ‘They also know that modern psychiatry isn’t performing very well, and hasn’t for a long time.’
In an age of WhatsApp counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy delivered by computers, the most radical part of it all isn’t actually the drugs themselves – it’s the human element. ‘You have people around you who are there supporting you along the way, and are encouraging very deep soul-searching, which has great honesty about it,’ he says. ‘It’s about revelation, self-understanding and connection.’ He can’t help himself – his face lights up. ‘At its core, it’s something quite beautiful.’