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Tag Archives: Medical research

Donation to Tennessee institute comes as country star launches bedtime story initiative to offer a welcome distraction for children

Dolly Parton has donated $1m (800,000) to research into a coronavirus vaccine, as she begins a new storytelling series for children in lockdown.

The country music star wrote on Instagram:

My longtime friend Dr Naji Abumrad, whos been involved in research at Vanderbilt for many years, informed me that they were making some exciting advancements towards that research of the coronavirus for a cure. I am making a donation of $1 million to Vanderbilt towards that research and to encourage people that can afford it to make donations.

Abumrad works at the Vanderbilt Institute for Infection, Immunology and Inflammation at Vanderbilt University hospital in Nashville, Tennessee. He and Parton became friends in 2014 after the singer was involved in a car accident and was treated at Vanderbilt. His son, Jad, subsequently interviewed Parton for the podcast Dolly Partons America.

Numerous teams are working on research into a coronavirus vaccine. US biotech firm Moderna began trials for a vaccine on 16 March, with Chinese firm CanSino Biologics launching its own trials the same day. The World Health Organization lists 52 other firms developing potential vaccines.

Parton is fighting another front of the coronavirus crisis: bored children. On Thursday she is launching Goodnight With Dolly, a bedtime story series on YouTube, beginning with a reading of The Little Engine That Could. She said she hoped the series would be a welcome distraction during a time of unrest, and inspire a love of reading and books.

Parton has long championed reading, with her charity, Imagination Library, having given more than 130m books to children.

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Love drugs could soon be a reality, and used alongside therapy to help heal broken relationships, claims a new book

For some time, it has been widespread medical practice to treat a range of psychological conditions, including depression and anxiety, with what might be called mind-altering drugs, namely selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which, as the name suggests, affect levels of serotonin in the brain. But theres one mental category that isnt considered appropriate for any kind of biomedical intervention. Its arguably the most talked about of all human states, the cause of much of our finest art, literature and music, and it is celebrated or, depending on your view, commercially exploited once again on Friday: love.

It may be a many splendoured thing, but love is a condition for which there is famously no cure. All you need is love, as the song said, but money cant buy you it. Its viewed as an emotional ideal and yet the source of untold pain and suffering. Ask any 10 people what love is and youre sure to get 10 different answers. Unsurprisingly, given that it is the stuff of romance, we tend to romanticise it. Millions of words have been spilled in trying to describe the feeling, but not many have been devoted to the biochemical processes that lie behind it.

In their new book, Love Is the Drug, Oxford ethicists Brian Earp and Julian Savulescu point out that this neglected aspect of love is just as important as its social or psychological structures. Intuitively, perhaps, weve always known this. After all, how do we explain the lack of interest felt on a new date? There was no chemistry.

Yet while we have largely come to accept that drugs that affect the brain have a part to play in treating psychological illnesses, the idea that the same approach could apply to love goes against the grain. We think of love as natural and healthy and therefore not something that is in need of what Earp and Savulescu delicately call biomedical enhancement.

The authors, however, argue that its time to change our attitudes and explore the possibilities offered by breakthroughs in biomedicine and neuroscience. If it becomes possible to safely target the underlying neurochemistry that supports romantic attachment, using drugs or other brain-level technologies, they write, then there is reason to think this could help some people who really need it.

They go further and suggest that such drugs have already been partially tested, have been used by huge numbers of people around the world, and should urgently become the subject of controlled research. The problem is the drugs theyre talking about are illegal psychoactive substances such as psilocybin and, in particular, methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), the active ingredient in the rave drug ecstasy.

They cite studies that show positive results for the use of MDMA in counselling those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and speculate that similar outcomes might be expected for couples whose relationships have hit the rocks.

But isnt that a bit of an inductive stretch? What does the effect of, say, fighting in Iraq have to do with failing romances? Earp points out that there is already a small study showing how couples in which one partner has PTSD have benefited from the regulated use of MDMA. The way the drug is thought to work on PTSD sufferers, he says, is by breaking down the defence mechanisms that prevent their being able to open up.

Our point is that trauma falls on a spectrum and relationships themselves can be traumatic, he explains. What causes a lot of relationships to break down over time is traumatic or semi-traumatic events that take place either inside or outside the relationship. People start to close down and stop sharing with their partners. Insofar as love requires a certain kind of intimacy, the defence mechanism and the kneejerk fear responses that we build up around talking about certain issues with our partners are the very things that this drug directly enables us to overcome.

As may be gathered from that response, Earp is not interested in bringing biomedical enhancement to first dates, for reasons of what he terms authenticity. He wants to focus on those who have already passed that initial chemistry test and whose love has subsequently become worn and torn by the everyday rigours of life.

If you take a drug that all of a sudden makes you feel much closer to someone than you did five minutes ago, theres a risk that its the drug doing the work rather than some sort of established compatibility between you and the other person, he says. I think it was Timothy Leary who coined the term instant marriage syndrome, where people would meet someone at a dance and think, Ooh, Ive met my soulmate and theyd go and get married and as the drug wore off, and they got to know each other better, they found they didnt actually have good compatibility.

Of course MDMA is best known in this country for its starring role in the so-called second summer of love in 1988, when a generation of rave-goers discovered ecstasy, got loved up and shared the mass euphoria of dancing all night in an urban warehouse or field. The social idealism glimpsed at the beginning of that social movement soon spiralled into hedonistic excess, and it wasnt long before stories of teenage deaths related to taking the drug ruined the utopian dream.

Though largely unheard of in the UK before that summer, MDMA was already technically illegal for more than 10 years under umbrella legislation concerning phenethylamines. In the US, it was not made illegal until 1985. Earp and Savulescu are not now calling for its wholesale legalisation. They acknowledge its potential dangers, particularly if taken in the wrong situation with inadequate support, and argue that it should only be available in a therapeutic setting, under the guidance of a professional.

Kristin Kreuk and Adam Sinclair in Ecstasy, an adaptation of Irvine Welshs 1996 story The Undefeatured, set amid ecstasy users in the rave scene. Photograph: Intandem Films/Allstar

Until 1985, as Love Is the Drug reminds us, MDMA had been used by many relationship counsellors in the US. In 1998, psychiatrists George Greer and Requa Tolbert wrote in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, of their experience of conducting MDMA-enhanced therapeutic sessions with about 80 clients in the first half of the 1980s.

These clients had to give their informed consent and were selected after a pre-screening process. Then Greer and Tolbert would meet the clients in their homes, where they would administer a pure dose of between 77mg and 150mg of MDMA, with a 50mg booster if requested later on (the street drug in the UK is said to contain upwards of 150mg, and occasionally as much as 300mg). According to Greer and Tolbert, 90% of their clients benefited from MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, with some, as Earp and Savulescu write, reporting that they felt more love toward their partners and were better able to move beyond past pains and pointless grudges.

A cynic might say, whats left of love after that? But a more serious point is how to distinguish the relationships that are worth saving or enhancing from those that are fundamentally dysfunctional, when there might be a danger that the temporary high could help disguise the dysfunction.

Earp and Savulescu are careful not to be too prescriptive in their definitions of love, allowing that its pretty much whatever those who declare possession of it say it is. Equally, Earp is on guard for external paternalistic judgments of other peoples relationships. His belief is that there is a monogamy/promiscuity spectrum along which we all fall and that no position on it is more natural than any other. So one-size-fits-all classifications are destined to miss the mark.

I think it would be a mistake to say everyone should be lifelong monogamists, no matter what, and were going to enforce that through the criminal code, he says. But it would also be a mistake to say that were all just bonobos and monogamy is a thing of the past and we should have as many sexual partners as we can find. In the world of meaning, subjective experience and how we relate to each other, theres a lot of room for diverse interpretations of whats valuable.

History has a bad track record of deciding what the right relationship is, says Earp, noting that it was only very recently that homosexual love was brought within the fold of acceptability. But there is one objective criterion to which the pair do hold firm. When it comes to violent abuse, weve drawn a pretty strong line in the sand collectively as a society, he says. That is a very strong signal that its objectively a bad relationship.

The book makes several bold claims that seem the product of marketing needs rather than hardcore scientific fact. For example, it states that the biological underpinnings of romantic love are being revealed and that the prospect of real love drugs is upon us. But there remains a great deal of debate, not to say confusion, about the workings of even such fundamental biological constituents as the hormone testosterone regarding its role in the libido. And as you might expect from professional ethicists, the book is at its most impressive when considering the moral, social and pragmatic issues concerned with scientific development, rather than the details of the development itself.

If and when the aforementioned biological underpinnings are revealed, and we are able to regulate emotions and behaviour through biomedical supplements, does that suggest we will become somehow less autonomous and, consequently, more like a programmable machine?

There are lots of ways we take steps to try to shape ourselves and our self-narratives, says Earp. There are ones that were comfortable with because they dont seem to involve the brain and were a little bit scared of interacting with the brain directly.

But the fact is, he says, even words can affect our brains. He cites the example of the Oedipus myth. One moment hes happily having sex with Jocasta, feeling love towards her, the next he discovers that shes his mother. He hasnt taken any drugs but you can bet that all of a sudden his testosterone levels will plummet and his libido will drop.

Our neurochemistry is changing all the time, says Earp, and one way that can happen is by the direct administration of drugs, which have their own benefits and risks.

We just need to identify those cases where intervening with drugs or psychology or chaining our social circumstance will be likely to improve authenticity or autonomy rather than detract from it.

He speaks with such reasoned composure on the subject that it comes as a surprise to learn that he has never taken MDMA himself.

Ive been interested in that experience but I havent had the opportunity to go forward with that because it remains unjustly and inappropriately prohibited, he says.

The solution, he insists, is open research. In the meantime, well just have to continue fumbling away in the dark, breaking up and making up, trying to understand not just ourselves but the other person at least until the love drug arrives.

Microdosing: the perfect prescription?

In praise of ecstasy
Small studies have found that doses of MDMA can have beneficial effects for ex-military and first-responder PTSD sufferers; however, treatment takes place in controlled environments assisted by psychotherapy. There is no good evidence that recreational microdosing is effective or advisable.

Pot potential
Quality research on the effects of microdosing cannabinoids THC and CBD is nascent. A 2017 study found that very low doses of THC reduce stress, yet higher doses increase anxiety. In other studies, CBD has shown potential in the treatment of insomnia and a range of anxiety disorders.

Spore lore
In a recent episode of Netflixs The Goop Lab, employees of Gwyneth Paltrows wellness company decamped to Jamaica to microdose with magic mushrooms in order to solve various emotional or trauma issues. Although many Silicon Valley types are advocates, there is little high-quality evidence that this is effective.

Love is the Drug by Brian Earp and Julian Savulescu is published by Manchester University Press (20). To order a copy go to Free UK P&P on all online orders over 15

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As Australias first trial for psychedelic therapy for terminally ill patients gets under way, a growing movement says it could also help other conditions

In August 2016 I went to New York for the first time. On the second evening, as the sun slipped behind the building across the street, I was sitting on a long couch on the top floor of an old church. All around me instruments were scattered on the floor singing bowls, tuning forks, rainsticks, Tibetan bells. At the foot of a wall carpeted completely in moss, dripping like the jungle in the baking heat, was a large bronze gong.

On the table in front of me two small ceramic bowls contained a capsule of 125mg of pure MDMA and a chilli guacamole with three grams of powdered magic mushrooms stirred through it. I eyed them nervously. I was terrified that I was going to lose my mind but I was more scared that nothing would happen at all, that I was too broken for even this radical treatment.

Id left Australia to take psychedelics with a therapist. Almost a decade of regular talk therapies for depression had done little to explain why I still felt so numb, trapped and terrified. A few months earlier Id tracked down a guy online who said that, while it wasnt a magic bullet, he might have something that would help. I cant name him because its still completely illegal.

He was sitting across from me and after Id swallowed the contents of both bowls he handed me a padded eye mask and suggested I lie back on the couch. I heard him move across the room in the steamy darkness as I tried to relax and focus on my breathing. Moments later I heard the first strange notes from the gong.

2016 was a breakthrough year for psychedelic therapy, not just for me. In May, a study from the Beckley Foundation in partnership with Imperial College London found that two-thirds of their participants with treatment-resistant depression were in remission a week after a therapy session with psilocybin, the active chemical in magic mushrooms. One participant said: I found I felt more connected, to myself, other people, nature, life in general. I felt alive, rather than distant and isolated and cut off.

In November 2016 two US university studies jointly published their findings: 80% of the terminally ill patients who had similar psilocybin sessions experienced significant reductions in depression and anxiety.

The following week the US Food and Drug Administration announced that it was approving the final phase of trials of psychotherapy for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) using MDMA.

Meanwhile, in Australia nothing. At the end of 2015 Psychedelic Research in Science and Medicine (Prism), a non-profit research association formed in 2011, had its second application for a study of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy knocked back by Deakin University. The email from the deputy vice chancellor for research said: The university will not engage in research that has the potential to damage its reputation as an ethical organisation.

Dr Martin Williams, president of Prism and a medicinal chemistry researcher at Monash University, got the message loud and clear. We realised then that it was going to be a hearts and minds operation on our behalf, that we were going to have to be an advocacy organisation and play the long game, he says.

The momentum has been building for decades overseas. In 1986 Rick Doblin, a trainee therapist with a PhD from the Harvard Kennedy school, founded the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (Maps) to overturn the decision by the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to criminalise MDMA use. Initially a drug used in the 1970s by American therapists to enhance their clients feelings of trust and openness during sessions, MDMAs effects had become too popular to contain and, like LSD a couple of decades before, it broke through into wider culture leading to a blanket ban on recreation and research.

Doblin, a shambling sun-bear of a man with a perpetual smile, initially launched an appeal against the DEA decision through its own legal channels, and won. However, the DEA disregarded the ruling so Maps opted for medicalisation taking MDMA through several phases of clinical trials to establish its safety and therapeutic efficacy. I just knew from personal experience, from working with patients, that MDMA was so different from the way the government was trying to present it, so much better, that eventually the truth would come out, says Doblin. Did I think it would take 32 years? No.

It was only last year that the full results of six phase-two trials of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy were published, in Lancetand the Journal of Psychopharmacology. Of 107 patients with treatment-resistant PTSD who were administered the drug in two or three seven-hour sessions, with therapists, eye mask and music, 68% were in remission at the 12-month follow-up. Its about twice the success rate for the gold-standard treatment for PTSD: prolonged exposure therapy.

MDMAs therapeutic properties emerge from a combination of factors. Its most acute effect is to significantly dampen the activity of the amygdala, the part of our brain that regulates fear response. While it relieves anxiety and stress, MDMA also sharply increases the brains supply of serotonin and oxytocin, the neurotransmitters primarily responsible for mood regulation and social bonding.

A recent study in Nature suggested that MDMA can temporarily return the brain to an early development state of exuberant brain plasticity that fosters renewed social reward learning. The American psychiatrist Julie Holland says: You basically couldnt design a molecule that is better for therapy than MDMA.

A former firefighter, Ed Thompson, was overdosing nightly on a combination of booze and benzos when he entered a Maps trial in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. The trauma of losing nine colleagues as they fought a warehouse fire beside him, the worst firefighting loss in the US since 9/11, was compounded by a chronic illness afflicting his twin baby daughters.

My body felt like it was going to explode from the inside out … I was underwater and drowning, he told me last year. After three all-day MDMA sessions with two therapists beside him, he no longer met the criteria for PTSD. It was just an incredible time of healing.

In 2017 the US Food and Drug Administration declared MDMA a breakthrough therapy, and Doblin expects it to be a legal medicine in the US again by 2021. Phase-three trials have begun at 15 sites in the US, Canada and Israel and will roll out across Europe this year after agreement with the European Medicines Agency.

In Australia a proposal for an MDMA trial with just four participants is slowly moving through the approvals process, this time at Edith Cowan University in Perth. Stephen Bright, senior lecturer in addiction studies at the university and vice president of Prism, says it supports the trial, and the wider community is increasingly open to the idea. The public are generally receptive, he says. All the stuff Im talking about depression, trauma, addiction they have been touched by in some way. At the end of the day, the evidence says that psychedelic therapy is effective at treating a range of conditions.

Nigel Strauss, a Melbourne psychiatrist and trauma specialist who worked with Prism on its failed proposal, says the way psychedelic therapy works is a challenge to prevailing medical assumptions. Psychedelic drugs are a whole change of perspective, he says. These are meaning drugs, and the whole concept of meaning eludes people and they think its hocus-pocus. These are concepts that dont fit easily into medical science at the moment particularly in this country.

But something has shifted. In January St Vincents hospital in Melbourne announced that Australias first trial of psilocybin-assisted therapy for 30 people with terminal illnesses will start in coming months. It is believed the mind-expanding and mystical properties of the psychedelic experience might be especially effective at relieving the existential angst and hopelessness that often accompanies a terminal diagnosis. When youre working with psychedelics you can reliably expect these deeply embodied transformational moments, says Rosalind Watts, a clinical psychologist working on the Beckley/Imperial trial.

Williams, who is co-investigator on the St Vincents study, which Prism has helped organise, says what has been called the psychedelic renaissance overseas is more like the dawning of a new age in Australia, where there is no history of psychedelic research. Its definitely a major step forward because as long as we achieve positive results from the research, then we expect to move that into therapeutic practice in a period of time perhaps five to 10 years, he says.

Not everyone is so enthusiastic. Sandy McFarlane, the director of the centre for traumatic stress studies at the University of Adelaide, wonders if psychedelics researchers have been drinking the Kool-Aid: Adequate evidence from carefully controlled trials is yet to be published, particularly by individuals who are not advocates of the therapy. Let the data speak for itself as with any treatment.

Gillinder Bedi, a senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne who has previously run US studies of the pharmacology of MDMA, agrees that some advocates are a bit much: They are the true believers. Scientists are a little bit uncomfortable with the language that gets used. I dont think that [organisations like Maps] understand the effect of coming from the counterculture on the people outside it.

For Bedi their findings are almost too good to be true: The results Ive seen are unique the effects are really clear. Its just that theyve been in small studies and theyve been conducted by people who have massively vested interests in the whole thing Theres a part of me that goes, Why did your data end up so neat and nice? Im not sceptical about the rigour of the science, Im just confused more than anything.

But Bedi insists that contrary to its reputation MDMA is safe to use therapeutically: Its pretty clear now that we can administer it in a controlled environment with appropriate supervision pretty safely. Psychedelics studies exclude people with a history of psychosis or mania, as well as those with certain medical conditions that the drug effects could exacerbate. If its given to people who are well screened beforehand, those risks can be controlled.

The Prism team was cagey about the St Vincents study until the moment it was announced, but Williams has noticeably relaxed his attitude discussing psychedelics in the Australian context. I think theres been a broad shift in the public discourse, which has been this ongoing process, probably since the results of the clinical trials in the US and Europe were first communicated, he says. Its thanks to the great groundwork of Maps and others overseas that were at the point we are now at all.

A new non-profit called Mind Medicines Australia launches next month to coordinate training more therapists to meet the potential demand. Williams and Strauss are planning a study of psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression, modelled on UK research.

For more than a decade, the Beckley Foundation has developed groundbreaking psychedelic research in partnership with Imperial College London. They produced the first brain scans of the LSD and psilocybin experience which suggest that, rather than amplifying neural activity as expected, psychedelics appear to selectively inhibit the default mode network, which regulates executive brain function like a disciplinarian teacher. When psychedelics take it out of the picture for a period, a whole bunch of new connections and neural activity fires up like exuberant children, allowing a wider range of phenomena to reach conscious awareness. Brain scans of long-term meditators have shown the same pattern.

The novel neural connections facilitated in the psychedelic state can lead to lasting changes. A 2018 Beckley/Imperial study using data from their previous depression trial measured significant increases in the personality domain of openness three months after the single high dose of psilocybin.

It replicates similar findings from Johns Hopkins University in the US. Albert Garcia-Romeu, who is leading another Hopkins psilocybin study, told me that openness goes hand-in-hand with reductions in symptoms such as rigid negative thinking. [It] has shown association with overall happiness and quality of life, so in that regard I think it can be an important piece of the puzzle in terms of psychedelics therapeutic potentials, he says.

Ian Roullier, a participant in the Beckley study of treatment-resistant depression, described how he experienced it: Depression is a very narrow, restricted state and taking psilocybin really helps you to zoom out a lot more I felt a lightness within myself and more of a freedom. Like MDMA for PTSD, psilocybin has just been given breakthrough therapy status for treatment-resistant depression and large-scale trials are being rushed through across Europe.

For me, about an hour and a half after I lay down in New York, I took off the eye mask and sat up to a world transformed. For as long as I could remember there had been a wall of glass between the world and me, trapping me in a numb limbo that a litany of talk therapy and medications couldnt touch.

Like magic, the wall was gone. Everything I looked at had a new clarity and immediacy as I drank it in. It was as though an iron knot of tension in my forehead, which contracted my whole body in its clenching grip, had suddenly dissolved. I felt calm, confident and connected. I didnt feel like I was tripping I felt like myself for the first time in years. It was the purest relief Id ever known.

Almost three years later Im back living in Fremantle but its all changed. I had spent past Western Australian summers in bed, staring at the wall with the blinds down. This year Im up at five most mornings making the most of the rising sun: gym, swim, long walk on the beach, and in the studio by eight this morning to finish off my edits before uni. Id always wanted to write but the words wouldnt come, and while I still have to work bloody hard to keep the show on the road, its all flowing now.

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Rock singer Steve Ludwin has been injecting himself with snake venom for 30 years. In a strange twist, his bizarre habit could now save thousands of lives. His former partner Britt Collins tells his outlandish story

Poison pass: the man who became immune to snake venom

Poison pass: the man who became immune to snake venom

Rock singer Steve Ludwin has been injecting himself with snake venom for 30 years. In a strange twist, his bizarre habit could now save thousands of lives. His former partner Britt Collins tells his outlandish story

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Results raise hopes that active substance in class 1 drug could be used to treat mental health conditions in future

Magic mushrooms have lifted severe depression in a dozen volunteers in a clinical trial, raising scientists hopes that the psychedelic experiences beloved of the Aztecs and the hippy counter-culture of the 1970s could one day become mainstream medicine.

A clinical trial, which took years and significant money to complete due to the stringent regulatory restrictions imposed around the class 1 drug, has found that two doses of psilocybin, the active substance in the mushrooms, was sufficient to lift resistant depression in all 12 volunteers for three weeks, and to keep it away in five of them for three months.

The size of the trial and the absence of any placebo means the research, funded by the Medical Research Council and published in the Lancet Psychiatry journal (pdf), is a proof of principle only.

The scientists, from Imperial College London, said they hoped the results would encourage the MRC or other funders to put up the money needed for a full trial. However, the use of a placebo control, comparing those who use the drug with those who do not, will always be difficult, because it will be obvious who is having a psychedelic experience.

In spite of the outcome, the researchers urged people not to try magic mushrooms themselves.

The lead author, Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, said: Psychedelic drugs have potent psychological effects and are only given in our research when appropriate safeguards are in place, such as careful screening and professional therapeutic support.

I wouldnt want members of the public thinking they can treat their own depressions by picking their own magic mushrooms. That kind of approach could be risky.

The senior author, Prof David Nutt, said it was justified for researchers to explore the medical use of banned recreational drugs.

It is important that academic research groups try to develop possible new treatments for depression as the pharmaceutical industry is pulling out of this field. Our study has shown psilocybin is safe and fast acting so may, if administered carefully, have value for these patients.

All the volunteers had severe depression and had failed to improve on at least two standard antidepressants. They were initially given a low dose of psilocybin to ensure they had no adverse reactions (none did) and then a higher dose a week later. They were treated in a specially prepared room, with music playing and in the presence of two psychiatrists who talked with them throughout. The psychedelic experience lasted up to five hours.

One of the volunteers, Kirk Rutter, from London, described himself as being heartbroken by the death of his mother and unable to come to terms with it in spite of counselling and medication. He said he was nervous about taking part and had never taken magic mushrooms, but said the friendly staff, the room layout and the music had relaxed him by the time he came to swallow the capsules.

Both times I experienced something called psychedelic turbulence. This is the transition period to the psychedelic state, and caused me to feel cold and anxious, the 45-year-old said. However this soon passed, and I had a mostly pleasant and sometimes beautiful experience.

There were certainly some challenging moments during the sessions, for instance when I experienced being in hospital with my mother when she was very ill. And during the high-dose session I visualised my grief as an ulcer that I was preventing from healing so that I could stay connected to my mother. However, by going through memories, and feeling the love in our relationship, I saw that letting go of the grief was not letting go of her memory.

He said it was not a quick fix and he needed to keep working at feeling positive, but he was still doing great.

Nutt said major hurdles had to be overcome to carry out the research. It took a year to get ethical approval and there was a six-month safety study, but the hardest part was getting through the red tape.

It took 30 months to get the drug, which had to be specially packaged into capsules for the trial by a company which was required to get a licence to do so. All the regulatory approvals took 32 months, Nutt said. It cost 1,500 to dose each person, when in a sane world it might cost 30.

The researchers said they did not know whether the effect of the drug was caused by chemical changes in the brain or whether the psychedelic experience, which people describe as spiritual or mystical, gives them a new perspective. Either way, they said psilocybin offered hope for those who had been depressed for an average of 18 years – the majority of the volunteers had been depressed most of their lives.

The study was part of a research collaboration between Imperial and the Beckley Foundation, a thinktank that focuses on drugs policy.

Amanda Feilding, founder of Beckley and co-director of the trial programme with Nutt, said: The results from our research are helping is to understand how psychedelics change consciousness, and how this information can be used to find breakthrough treatments for many of humanitys most intractable psychiatric disorders, such as depression, addiction and obsessive compulsive disorder.

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After his wifes stroke and his daughters death from measles, Roald Dahl applied his genius to medicine making extraordinary breakthroughs. His doctor and friend recalls what he learned while treating the author in the last year of his life

In 1990, I was a junior doctor at the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford. I had finished all my training, and was now starting my first year on the wards. Roald Dahl was one of my patients. I can still remember the night I first met him.

It was nearly midnight and the lights were low. I was working away on the ward computer when I became aware of this large figure wandering slowly nearer, casting a great big shadow. I carried on tapping, concentrating. The restless patient walked past the nurses station, where I was sitting, and a few moments later wandered back again. He must have come past three or four times, each time a little slower, peering over my shoulder, trying to see what I found so absorbing. Eventually he stopped.

What are you doing?

It was a deep, booming voice. I looked up to see a giant of a man towering over me. He was wearing a silk nightshirt, and was wrapped in a huge dressing gown. He had large ears and twinkling, inquisitive eyes. It almost felt as if The BFG was peering down at me. But it wasnt the Big Friendly Giant. It was Roald Dahl himself.

Words is oh such a twitch tickling problem The BFG. Photograph: AP

We started chatting. I think Dahl was intrigued. Being a world famous author, he was used to people fussing and fawning over him, yet here was someone who seemed to be paying him no attention at all. Rather than dismiss me, however, Dahl wanted to know all about the medical research I was writing up on the computer.

And have you read any of my books? he asked after a while.

Well, I said and paused. I have not read any, but I loved the film of The Jungle Book.

The Jungle Book, as you probably know, is a wonderful film based on a fabulous book, but it is not by Dahl, it is by Rudyard Kipling. He looked at me curiously, trying to decide whether I was completely ignorant, or just teasing. Suddenly, having decided that this was a great joke, he roared with laughter. We became good friends after that.

As a junior doctor, I was on call every third night. Dahl found it difficult to sleep, and in the hushed semi-darkness of the wee small hours, we would chat. What about? Just about everything: people, places, literature, love, music, marriage and medicine. He told me all about his life, especially his extraordinary and often tragic encounters with the medical world.

Most people know Dahl as a famous writer of childrens books, but few are aware of his fascination with medicine. Right from his earliest days to the end of his life, Dahl was intrigued by what doctors do and why. Indeed, he often said he would have liked to have been a doctor. During his lifetime, he and his family suffered some terrible medical tragedies but he also played a part in some incredible medical triumphs.

In 1965, Dahls first wife, the Oscar-winning actor Patricia Neal, had a brain haemorrhage, causing a stroke that nearly killed her. She underwent an operation to stop the bleeding, but the left half of her brain was damaged. She was unable to talk, and her right side was paralysed, though gradually things began to improve.

I witnessed the slow, mysterious recovery of a brain that had been severely insulted, Dahl recalled one evening in Oxford, and the steady return to consciousness of the owner of that brain. Pat eventually left hospital and her speech began to return, but she struggled with the names of objects and people. When she couldnt find the words, she invented new ones. A drink was a soap driver or a sooty swatch. A cigarette was an oblogon. Pat would complain that Dahl made her skitch (cross) or gave her the sinkers (depression).

Patricia, Dahl and Valeria Eaton Griffith, with whom he wrote a stroke guide. Photograph: RDNL/Courtesy RDMSC

Dahl made careful notes of these neologisms, which helped with an article he was writing about her stroke for Ladies Home Journal, but he may have thought they would come in useful elsewhere. It would be more than 15 years before The BFG would greet little Sophie with a bellow of laughter and the words: Just because I is a giant, you think I is a man gobbling cannybull ! Please understand that I cannot be helping it if I sometimes is saying things a little squiggly Words is oh such a twitch tickling problem to me all my life

Dahl spent hours creating new words for The BFG, many of which, as he said of Pats neologisms, were better than the originals. He described human beans that taste scrumdiddlyumptious or uckyslush; a zoo full of hippodumplings and crocadowndillies; the telly telly bunkum box. Dahls account of The BFGs difficulty could have come straight from the mouth of Pat: You must simply try to be patient and stop squibbling I know exactly what words I am wanting to say, but somehow or other they is always getting squiff squiddled around what I mean and what I says is two different things

Like other childrens authors, Dahl had made up words before, but in The BFG there was a veritable explosion. Dahl was vague when I asked him about the link. Well, Id always enjoyed making up new words. Thats part of the fun, you know, that keeps the nippers interested. But I suppose, yes, some of the trouble Pat had did work its way into The BFG. Yes, it must have.

It seemed so obvious to me that I was amazed to find subsequently, while researching my book about Dahls medical achievements, that it had never been explored before. Looking back, I wish I had probed Dahl further. Having now read much more about this extraordinary man, I know that the answer he gave about neologisms was the sort of nebulous response he gave when he felt the truth of the matter was not exactly the story he wanted to tell.

Take The Gremlins: he wrote the book for Walt Disney, with a view to turning it into a film, and brought the expression into popular usage, but did he actually invent the term gremlins? Then theres the question of how his plane came down in Libya during the second world war was he really shot down, or did he crashland after being given the wrong location of an airfield by an incompetent commanding officer? And did the resulting monumental bash on the head really convert a promising oil executive into a bestselling author, as Dahl claimed, or was the literary potential already there, just waiting to express itself?

Perhaps Dahl felt some discomfort at having based the speech of one of his best-loved characters on the aftereffects of his wifes stroke. Or maybe he had never recognised the link until I raised it. No one in the family remembers him discussing it, but then he rarely talked about the books he was working on. Either way, Pats stroke provided inspiration for more than just The BFGs Gobblefunk language. Back in 1965, there was little in the way of rehabilitation for stroke patients: Dahl was told just one hour a day would be appropriate.

Surely one hour a day is not enough, he said to me. What in the world are you going to teach a child if she only goes to school for an hour a day? That is what Pat was like then a child. She didnt even know her ABC.

Stanley Wade with the valve they invented to treat Dahls sons hydrocephalus. Photograph: Leonard McCombe/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

He feared she would become an enormous pink cabbage, so he set up with friends and neighbours in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire an intensive six-hours-a-day regime. Some professionals warned this was too much, but he ignored them. Pat was coached back to normality slowly, insidiously and quite relentlessly. She eventually resumed her acting career, even getting another Oscar nomination.

This miraculous recovery attracted a lot of attention. Other stroke patients and their families wrote to ask how Dahl had managed it. So with the help of a neighbour, Valerie Eaton Griffith, Dahl wrote a guide. She developed this into a book, and the methods were taken up widely, inspiring a whole new movement, which led to the formation of The Stroke Association.

Theo convalescing with, from left, Olivia, Patricia, Tessa and Dahl. Photograph: RDNL/Courtesy RDMSC

Amazingly, Dahls extraordinary medical influence did not stop there. One evening, we were chatting about a report I was sending to the Lancet. Ah yes, he commented casually, its a good journal. We published there many years ago Yes, we invented a valve for hydrocephalus. From the sparkle in his eyes, I suspected he was trying to get a rise from me. He enjoyed teasing junior doctors. Had he really invented a neurosurgical device to treat water on the brain? I didnt believe a word. I knew Dahl was a great storyteller. But, 25 years after his death, while researching my book, I was astonished to find that this was true.

Dahls son Theo had developed hydrocephalus after being hit by a taxi, aged four months. The valve he was fitted with kept blocking and, in characteristic style, Dahl set about solving the problem with the help of a neurosurgeon and a toymaker. We produced this splendid little valve, Dahl told me. It was used to treat thousands of children around the world. My neurosurgical colleagues still occasionally come across them today, while operating on adults who had them inserted as children.

We thought she was over the worst of it Olivia, who died after catching measles. Photograph: RDNL/Courtesy RDMSC

And then there was his involvement in measles vaccination, an altogether more devastating episode. When Dahls daughter Olivia caught the virus aged seven, she developed the most severe form, with inflammation of the brain: encephalitis. She died within days. Dahl was devastated and, for years, would barely talk about it. But with me, he was very open.

We thought she was over the worst of it, he said one evening. One saw, you know, the usual sort of thing: the fever, the tiredness, the spots. We even teased her for her polka dots. Dahl had a wan smile and his eyes began to well up. He looked so tired and sad. After the initial illness, Olivia had appeared to improve before slipping into a coma. There was nothing anyone could do. But when the measles vaccine became available some years later, Dahl did all he could to help its uptake. He supported campaigns with a famous measles letter to children which is still used today, and badgered the government to do more.

I realise now, as we chatted all those years ago, Dahl wasnt so much teasing me, as being coy about all he had achieved. Apparently, he could be proud, boastful, arrogant and argumentative when discussing his writing. But when talking about these major medical breakthroughs, he was happy to minimise his role, giving the credit to others.

I was privileged to look after Dahl as his life came to an end. He wrote so poignantly about fatalities in the war, and devised such bizarre deaths in his Tales of the Unexpected, I wondered how he would face his own demise. I found it was with humour, humility and an unending fascination in medical science.

Roald Dahls Marvellous Medicine by Tom Solomon is published by Liverpool University Press on 13 September. The Stroke Association is one of six charities benefiting from sales of the book. Tom Solomon tweets @RunningMadProf;

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