More extensive testing of using ecstasy and LSD to combat depression is needed, Sir Patrick Vallance has said.
The ex-chief scientific adviser to the Government, who became a household name during Covid, claimed ‘anecdotal’ evidence suggests that psychedelics can help.
But Sir Patrick, who stood down from his role last month, said it was ‘really shocking’ how few patients are involved in clinical trials.
Speaking at the Hay Festival, he responded to an audience member who had asked whether their 107-year old grandmother — who has had depression for seven years — would benefit by taking psychedelics.
‘I don’t think you should slip your grandmother an ecstasy tablet,’ Sir Patrick responded. ‘But I think it’s a really important point: you’ve got to test these things properly.’
Sir Patrick Vallance (pictured) – who became a household name during Covid, appearing next to Boris Johnson and Sir Chris Whitty during tense Downing Street briefings – was responding to an audience member who asked whether their 107-year old grandmother would benefit by taking psychedelics
Dame Kate Bingham (pictured), former chair of the UK’s vaccine taskforce, also spoke alongside Sir Patrick at the event. ‘From a regulatory perspective, I think it’s going to be challenging to work out: how do you regulate psychedelics so that they can be safely given to the over-85s or the young adolescents who are in a really bad way?,’ she said. However, she added: ‘I do think this is an area of real excitement’
The mind-altering properties of hallucinogenic and party drugs have been known for centuries. But ecstasy is currently included in Schedule 1 of the Misuse of Drugs Act, along with drugs like LSD. This means it cannot be lawfully possessed or prescribed and a Home Office licence is needed for use in research
‘One of the really shocking things is how few people are in clinical trials.’
He told audience members at the literary festival in Wales: ‘We don’t know what we’re doing most of the time – why wouldn’t you have more people in clinical trials, and try to find out?’
The mind-altering properties of hallucinogenic and party drugs have been known for centuries.
Yet psychiatrists say evidence is mounting to show the same trip-inducing effects of the substances might revolutionise mental health treatment.
Mental health charities and psychiatrists wrote to the government earlier this month calling for a change in the legislation for psilocybin, the hallucinogenic compound in magic mushrooms.
Campaigners want it to be used on the NHS and in medical research easier.
A Home Office licence is needed for any use in research.
Recreational use would remain illegal, with Brits caught in possession of the Class A drug facing a jail-term of up to seven years.
Ecstasy and LSD also come under the tightest control.
Sir Patrick told the festival: ‘There is a lot of enthusiasm around psychedelics at the moment. Some of that is pretty anecdotal.
‘Why don’t we stop it being anecdotal and actually work it out properly?
‘Healthcare systems can be much more geared towards asking the questions, testing the things properly, getting the answers as quickly as possible.’
Sir Patrick, who became a household name during Covid, appearing next to Boris Johnson and Sir Chris Whitty during tense Downing Street briefings, spoke at a panel event alongside Dame Kate Bingham, former chair of the UK’s vaccine taskforce.
Dame Kate also told audience members: ‘There is strong data now showing that different interventions can have effects on depression and mental health’.
Latest NHS data shows prescriptions for antidepressants among teens have risen by a quarter in England in 2020 compared to 2016. The greatest growth was seen among 13 and 19-year-olds where prescription rates rose by about a third
Young adults, who are often leaving home for the first time and starting their careers also saw antidepressant prescription rates boom by about 40 per cent
She added: ‘Treatment-resistant depression is a massively important mental health challenge.
‘From a regulatory perspective, I think it’s going to be challenging to work out: how do you regulate psychedelics so that they can be safely given to the over-85s or the young adolescents who are in a really bad way?
However, regarding psychedelics, Dame Kate added: ‘I do think this is an area of real excitement.’
Main treatments for anxiety and depression in the UK include talking therapies, such as counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Medication is also offered. Prescriptions for antidepressants, such as Prozac, Zispin, Molipaxin, and Cipramil, have more than doubled in the past decade.
NHS data shows some 22 million antidepressants were prescribed between October to December 2022, to an estimated 6.6million patients.
Researchers say the development of new treatment options over recent decades has been disappointing.
Psilocybin has been touted as a promising therapy. A synthetic version may even be rolled out on the NHS to treat depression within the next decade, experts believe.
Oxford University researchers tested psilocybin on 200-plus people with treatment-resistant depression — a severe form which doesn’t improve with currently-licensed drugs or therapy.
Volunteers received counselling and were given the drug in specialised rooms in a one-off eight-hour session likened to a ‘waking dream’.
Patients given the highest dose of the drug saw the severity of their depression fall most over the course of 12 weeks. They were most likely to go into remission.
Researchers are now progressing to phase three trials, testing its safety and efficacy on a bigger group.
Previous studies have found the drug may also ease other mental health problems, such as anxiety, anorexia and addiction.
Scientists believe it works by ‘opening up’ the brains of those with mental health problems — making them more flexible and fluid and less entrenched in negative thoughts — for up to three weeks.
What are antidepressants?
Antidepressants are medicines that treat depression symptoms.
There are around 30 different types that can be prescribed.
The NHS says that most people who have moderate or severe depression notice improvement when they take antidepressants. But it notes that this isn’t the case for everyone.
Side effects vary between different people and antidepressants but can include nausea, headaches, a dry mouth and problems having sex.
Antidepressants aren’t addictive but patients may have withdrawal symptoms if they stop taking them suddenly or miss a dose.
These can include an upset stomach, flu-like symptoms, anxiety, dizziness and vivid dreams.