Written by Orla Mallon
Things were really ramping up in Europe this September, with the OPEN Foundation hosting their 5th Interdisciplinary Conference on Psychedelic Research (ICPR) in Haarlem, Netherlands. This time, with their largest crowd yet. The three-day conference, running from 22nd – 24th September, brought together world-leading academics, therapists, researchers, clinicians, policymakers and members of the public to review where we are, where we have come from, and where we are going with psychedelics in research and therapy.
The question on everybody’s lips was – ‘how can we implement psychedelics into our pre-existing healthcare systems safely, legally, and responsibly?’.
For those of you who missed out, Drug Science Student Society member – Orla Mallon is here to give you a whirlwind tour of ICPR 2022!
Okay so remind me…what is ICPR?
ICPR is one of the largest European conferences committed to advancing psychedelic research and therapy. Run by the OPEN Foundation, they hosted their first conference in 2010 with a couple of hundred first-movers in the psychedelic research space. Since then, they have grown exponentially to host a sold-out event with over a thousand attendees in Amsterdam this year, and many also follow the event online by dialing in remotely.
One thing which really sets ICPR apart is their dedication to hosting conferences in beautiful surroundings. And this year’s Philharmonie building in the historical city of Haarlem was no exception. Stunning acoustics, large spaces for mingling, and healthy organic food made the event the perfect place to absorb all the big topics being discussed. These included:
How do we go from trials to treatments?
What responsibility do we take to manage the hype?
Which ethical guidelines can we implement for patients in altered states of consciousness?
and the controversial jaw-dropper from Rick Doblin – MDMA for children?
Who were some of the big names?
For many, the most moving moments came from standing in the presence of giants, and this year we were blessed to have some of our nearest and dearest including David Nichols, Bill Richards, Rick Doblin, and Paul Stamets who all crossed the Atlantic to attend. Roland Griffiths also joined online and managed to captivate the audience just as much as had he been here in person.
Closer to home, we had talks from Imperial College’s David-duo, David Nutt and David Erritzoe, Torsten Passie, Amanda Fielding, Chris Timmermann, Mendel Kaelan, Gitte Knudsen, and Peter Gasser. However, it was the coming together of people at the beginning and end of their careers, looking both forwards and backwards, which made this conference so endearing. This was further enhanced by the international presence of having attendees travel from Australia, Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica and many other countries to be there, creating the sense that it was not just Europe meeting to discuss the big questions, but the world.
Which panel was the most impactful panel of the conference?
Panel discussions were a focal point of the conference and this year it was hard to choose a favourite. We will also avoid mentioned any panel that Drug Science was a part of as we will speak about that below.
An early debate between David Nichols, Michelle Baker-Jones, Paul Stamets and Judy Ashworth surrounding whether we should pursue novel compounds or proceed with existing molecules brought to the fore the tension between the excitement of developing novel compounds contrasted against the difficulties these would face in passing through drug regulations. This debate followed from Stamets’ presentation on synthetic psilocybin versus psilocybin mushrooms. Here, he had called for clinical trials to investigate the influence of ‘stacking’ in microdosing, which is when the microdose of psilocybin is taken in combination with Lion’s Mane mushrooms and niacin. This combination, he claimed, had shown promising neurogenerative properties in his recent online microdosing research whereby 55% of the participants had been accompanying the microdose with other properties. Voices from the world of clinical trials spoke up to question whether the size of this effect would warrant the enormous cost and large number of participants that would be needed to robustly test this hypothesis, and if so who was willing to pay for it?
In a panel on the other side of clinical trials, Leonie Schneider, Ian Roullier, and Pedram Dara came together to tell the patient’s story of psychedelic trials. This opened for a heartfelt conversation where two important takeaways arose. Firstly, a consideration of the relationship between the participant and their psychedelic guide. The participants told of the deep and special connection they felt to their psychedelic guide, and mediated whether it should be this guide who leads them through the integration process or somebody else whom they are not so deeply connected to. They stressed the importance of explaining these relationships to the participant and managing expectations of what this connection may be like after the psychedelic experience. Secondly, there was a fervent call for more post-treatment therapy to be considered in the design of trials, as it can feel like the whole support network disappears whenever the trial has ended. There is no doubt that we will see both of these elements pop up again in future discussions as the field continues to grow.
What was Drug Science presenting about at ICPR 2022?
Drug Science was delighted to be invited to ICPR. We were approached to deliver one panel, one symposium and one talk.
Firstly, Professor David Nutt took the stage to present a talk on the neuroscience of psychedelics in health and mental illness. As one of the world’s leading experts on the neuropsychopharmacology of psychedelic substances, Prof Nutt felt in his element at this conference. Prof Nutt is often delivering this talk to laypersons, so to be surrounded by other neuropsychedelic connoisseurs was a welcomed change.
Secondly, Drug Science’s Head of Research Dr Anne Schlag shared some of the exciting developments that have been taking place behind the scenes in Drug Science’s Medical Psychedelics Ethics Consortium. Accompanied by Julia Bornemann, Ashleigh Murphy Beiner and Roberta Murphy, these four tacked some heavy topics with ease. Including:
How can we ensure reciprocity and sustainability?
How can we ensure that these medicines and associated care are accessible to everybody?
Finally, Prof Nutt took the stage again to close the show with the final panel of the conference. This panel focused on a topic that was continually being discussed at ICPR – How will European governments fund and regulate the future of medical psychedelic integration? On this panel, he was joined by Tadeusz Hawrot, founder of the Psychedelic Access and Research European Alliance (PAREA).
Which conversation made a particular impression on you?
One sobering talk from David Yaden of Johns Hopkins University deserves a particular mention for calling upon the field to take action in dampening the ‘hype bubble’. This comes at a pivotal time as Michal Pollen’s ‘How to Change Your Mind’ Netflix series sends new waves of excitement through the public. Yaden presented psychedelics as following a Gatten hype cycle of life stages, much like the cycle technology goes through from maturation to widespread adoption (demonstrated below).
While the ‘psychedelic hype’ is not a new topic of conversation, this gave a concise way to consider the phenomena and why we must act. He asked the crowd where we believed the psychedelic field currently was on this curve, and all were surprised when one enthusiastic attendee exclaimed “I’m certainly at the peak right now”. The crowd laughed, but the question lingered on. Yaden argued that we should welcome the bursting of psychedelic hype, as better things could happen afterwards. Moreover, he claimed that getting ahead of the curve would allow us to manage expectations and reduce harm in the ‘Trough of Disillusionment’ which may follow bad press. A few suggestions which could help was to reconsider how we talk about psychedelic findings, and take care when claiming they can solve the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness and/or all social problems in the world. Most of all he called for the word ‘cure’ to be eliminated from the vocabulary of psychedelic articles and papers as it was a red flag and undermined the integrity of the research. While being aware that his talk would portray him as a ‘wet blanket’ (“a person who spoils other people’s fun by failing to join in with or by disapproving of their activities”, Oxford dictionary), his talk received earnest applause.
(Gartner hype cycle, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gartner_hype_cycle )
Final thoughts on ICPR
As the experience of ICPR 2022 makes its way into our long-term memory stores, and as the glow of a conference shared together, in person, across three wonderful days in Amsterdam begins to fade; we are left with the knowledge, lessons, and new ideas, as well as the connections and hope for what comes next for psychedelic research and therapy. If the conference could leave one final lesson to us all it is that we have a responsibility to manage this future by sharpening our methodological approaches, striving for openness, rethinking how we talk about psychedelics, and continuing to collaborate because this is how we will bring trials to treatments.