When Kevin was just 11 months old, he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, which led to other health problems as he grew up: loss of vision in his left eye and peripheral neuropathy, a painful condition caused by nerve damage. Then, in 2019, a colonoscopy revealed he had colon cancer.
Feeling anxious and depressed, Kevin (a pseudonym) decided to try self-medicating with psychedelics, including psilocybin-containing “magic mushrooms.” Twice a week, the now 28-year-old delivery driver takes about half a gram of the outlawed fungi. This amounts to too little psilocybin to induce a full-blown trip, and Kevin says he quickly noticed an improvement in his mental health—a result that is in line with a handful of recent studies about the drug’s clinical potential. And he was pleasantly surprised to find that his physical pain seemed to decrease as well, even on the days he was not taking anything.
“A lot of the anxiety and depression I was dealing with started to fade away—and then the pain in my legs started to go away,” Kevin says. “I’m feeling the lasting effects from the psilocybin on my stomach and colon pretty much all the time.”
Vivid colors, warped textures and sounds, and intense introspection are famously associated with the psychedelic experience—and now, increasingly, so are improvements in mental health conditions such as anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. But what about pain relief? That is the question a growing number of researchers are asking, based on anecdotal reports that drugs such as LSD or psilocybin can help with this. Both drugs are currently illegal under federal law, though medical studies on them are now being officially cleared with increasing frequency.
From psychedelic start-ups to university labs, scientists are starting to test such drugs on various types of pain: cluster headaches, chronic pain, fibromyalgia and even phantom limb pain. This May a New York City–based, multimillion-dollar psychedelic start-up called Mind Medicine (MindMed) announced Project Angie—a series of studies using LSD and an undisclosed drug to treat chronic pain.
“We don’t really know how psychedelics work to modulate people’s long-term symptoms in any illness, let alone pain disorders, which are less studied than some of the others,” says physician Dan Karlin, MindMed’s chief medical officer. “But there is compelling preclinical evidence that they work … via psychological mechanisms … but also may have some direct effects on descending pain pathways.”
Tryp Therapeutics, a California-based psychedelic start-up, is exploring chronic pain relief using psilocybin and another, psilocybin-based drug with an undisclosed formulation that is obliquely called TRP-8803. The company has also partnered with the University of Michigan to study how these drugs might treat fibromyalgia, a complex and little understood condition blamed for pain throughout the body. Tryp has added leading psychedelic researcher Robin Carhart-Harris to its scientific advisory board, and the company says he will play a “critical role” in clinical trial design.