Psychedelic drugs, banned in India under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, are emerging in research as promising ways to treat treatment-resistant depression and post-traumatic stress disorder


  • Psychedelics are a group of drugs that alter perception, mood, and thought-processing while a person is still clearly conscious.
  • Psychedelics are non-addictive, non-toxic and compared to illicit drugs, they are less harmful to the end user.
  • In India, the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act 1985 prohibits the use of psychedelic substances.
  • Ketamine, a dissociative anaesthetic with psychedelic properties, is used under strict medical supervision, for anaesthesia and treatment-resistant depression.
  • A psychiatrist named Humphrey Osmond first used the term ‘psychedelic’ in 1957.

How do the drugs work in the body?

  • An intriguing phenomenon called synaesthesia may occur, where the sensory modalities cross and the user may ‘hear colour’ or ‘see sounds’.
  • Psychedelics are neither stimulants nor depressants of brain activity.
  • Instead, they increase the cross-talk between different brain networks, and this correlates with the subjective effects of psychedelics.

Can such substances cause harm?

  • Death due to direct toxicity of psychedelics has not been reported.
  • Synthetic psychedelics have been associated with acute cardiac, central nervous system, and limb ischaemia, as well as serotonin syndrome.
  • There have also been reports of death attributed directly to synthetic psychedelic use.

Recent breakthroughs:

  • Recently, the results from a phase II psilocybin trial found that a single 25-mg dose of psilocybin reduced depression scores over three weeks in people with treatment-resistant depression.
  • In 2017, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) designated the use of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, also known as MDMA, to be the breakthrough therapy in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • In 2018, the FDA had granted breakthrough therapy status to psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression as well.

Road Ahead:

  • Although recent findings are encouraging, there remains uncertainty about where the psychedelic renaissance will take us.
  • Psychedelic substances provide an intriguing avenue through which one can probe the broader constructs of creativity, spirituality, and consciousness, aside from their therapeutic effects.
  • While not a panacea, psychedelic substances have certainly reinvigorated clinical and research interests, and have added to psychiatry’s ever-expanding therapeutic armamentarium.
  • If larger phase III trials establish their safety and therapeutic efficacy, the FDA and other regulatory bodies may clear these agents for routine clinical use.


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