Conference Coverage

Psychedelic drugs ‘truly have potential’ in headache care



Psychedelics such as psilocybin “truly have the potential to transform how we treat a number of neuropsychiatric diseases, including headaches,” a neuropharmacologist told colleagues at the annual meeting of the American Headache Society.

However, Bryan Roth, MD, PhD, professor of pharmacology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, also offered a major cautionary note: There have been no randomized, phase 3 trials of psychedelics, and he bluntly said that “I do not recommend the use of psychedelics for any medical condition.”

The potential disease-altering powers of psychedelics have received a tremendous amount of research and media attention over the past several years. A landmark randomized, double-blind study released in 2016 triggered much of the interest, Dr. Roth said, when it suggested that high-dose psilocybin significantly lowered levels of depressed mood/anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer. At 6 months, 80% of patients who took the dose reported moderate or greater improvement in well-being/life satisfaction.

“You have the potential – unprecedented in psychiatry – that a single dose of a therapeutic agent may induce a rapid, robust, and sustained antidepressant action,” he said. Also of note: The “vast majority” of subjects say their encounter with a psychedelic was “one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives.”

Dr. Roth said his own research suggests that psychedelics cause a “huge increase” in the asynchronous firing of neurons. “Noise is being injected into the system and is interpreted by the brain or the mind, which always likes to make a story about what’s going on. The story it makes up is idiosyncratic to every person and memorable for reasons that are not understood.”

Now, Dr. Roth said, he and colleagues are working to “create drugs that have this potential remarkable therapeutic efficacy in psychiatric and neurologic disorders without the psychedelic effects.” A $27 million grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is providing support for their efforts, he said.

For the moment, he said, there’s no way to know if “the psychedelic experience is essential to the therapeutic action of these drugs. But it’s a testable hypothesis.”

As he noted, a tiny 2010 study of 2-bromo-lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), which doesn’t cause hallucinations, showed promise as a treatment for cluster headaches.

For now, Dr. Roth said, his lab is synthesizing and testing new compounds that interact with the crucial 5-HT2A receptor.

Additional research

In another presentation at the AHS annual meeting, neurologist Emmanuelle A. D. Schindler, MD, PhD, of Yale School of Medicine, highlighted her 2021 study of an exploratory double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over study of psilocybin versus placebo for migraine headache. A single oral dose of the drug, the researchers found, reduced headache frequency and pain over 2 weeks. The study is small, with just 10 subjects, and multiple exclusion criteria.

She also revealed preliminary findings from an ongoing randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of psilocybin versus placebo in cluster headaches. In 14 subjects, a psilocybin pulse was linked to fewer cluster attacks over 3 weeks, although the effect wasn’t statistically significant. However, there was a statistically significant reduction over 8 weeks in patients with chronic headache.

Dr. Schindler noted that “with these early studies, we only looked out to 2 weeks for migraine, and we only looked out to 2 months for cluster.” There are multiple other limitations, she acknowledged. “We have to do a lot more research and consider safety as well.”

However, “there is a really unique capacity for lasting effects after limited dosing,” she added, and the studies do show reductions in headache burden “that do not correlate with acute psychedelic effects.”

Moving forward, Dr. Roth cautioned that while U.S. states are allowing the use of psychedelics for medical purposes, “we don’t know if they ultimately are therapeutic. And we have strong reason to believe that microdosing or chronic dosing of these compounds is ultimately going to be deleterious to the health of our patients.”

Dr. Roth did not provide disclosure information. Dr. Schindler discloses research funding (Ceruvia Lifesciences, Wallace Research Foundation, Clusterbusters, Department of Veterans Affairs), serves on advisory boards (Ceruvia Lifesciences, Clusterbusters), and has a patent.

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