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Is Ketamine the Future of Mental Health Treatment?    

Is Ketamine the Future of Mental Health Treatment?

Art by FISK

By Jessica Schiffer

When Gwyneth Paltrow sent a team of her employees to Jamaica to be filmed taking mushrooms for her Netflix show “In Goop Health,” it was clear the narrative around psychedelics had shifted. In the last 5 years, what was once considered a dark relic of the “turn on, tune in, drop out” generation of the ‘70s has been reframed as an effective way to mitigate symptoms like anxiety and depression. Writers like Michael Pollan and Tim Ferriss have played a huge role in this transformation by shining a light on the compelling research into the impact of psychedelics on mental health that’s been taking place behind the scenes.

Despite the stigma shift, it remains difficult for those who aren’t participants in a research study (or an employee of Gwyneth) to test out psychedelics in a controlled setting that’s been set up to boost their mental health. A new company called Wonder Sciences is hoping to change that. Founded by the entrepreneur Ryan Magnussen in early 2020, the company (which has its own scientific and neuroscience research arm) is in the Beta phase of creating a telemedicine platform that combines low-dose ketamine pills with innovative therapeutic modalities to help people struggling with diagnoses like anxiety and depression. 

“We deeply believe that psychedelic medicine has the potential to help us understand our connectedness and the impact of our actions on each other and our planet,” says Gleb Kharkin, the company’s director of strategic initiatives. “The goal is to advance this scientific knowledge, starting with the question of how we can use psychedelic medicines in conjunction with other therapeutic protocols to effectively and humanely treat mental illness.”

Driving their treatment protocol is the Neuroplasticity theory, which proposes that symptoms of anxiety and depression (particularly the negative feedback loops) come from a lack of cognitive flexibility, or neuroplasticity. Wonder Sciences’ research has shown that, in conjunction with psychotherapy, ketamine can boost that flexibility, allowing for new thought patterns to be created. Unlike many of the pharmaceuticals out there on the market, the treatment period itself is short-term, maxing out at 6 months. “The goal is to get patients to [a place where they can] maintain the lifestyle habits that benefit their mental health without needing a drug to affect them,” says Kharkin.

To find out more about how ketamine can help those struggling with a mental health diagnosis, what the new telemedicine platform will involve, and what the future holds for psychedelic medicine, we spoke to the Wonder Sciences team, below.

How did you first become interested in the connection between psychedelics and mental health?

Gleb Kharkin, Director of Strategic Initiatives: In 2020, due to the pandemic, my summer internship had been cancelled and I had a bit of an existential crisis. I participated in a few psychedelic experiences – vision-quests if you will – and these were instrumental in calming the storm that had been ravaging my thoughts and in [helping me to] visualize a fulfilling life for myself going forward. 

Alex Keller, Director of Patient Experience: I experienced significant trauma growing up which followed me into adulthood in the form of anxiety and self-destructive behavior. While going through a profound healing journey involving mindfulness and meditation, a friend suggested I try psychedelic medicine to go deeper. For the first time it opened my eyes to a reality in which I was no longer a victim of my circumstances but a conscious creator of my life. It allowed me to see what I needed to work on to change and also to come home to my true self. 

How exactly can ketamine improve people's overall happiness and help them manage diagnoses like depression and anxiety?

Alex: Ketamine is a really special medicine because it doesn’t just treat the symptoms of depression, it treats the root cause. By increasing neuroplasticity, which is the brain's ability to adapt and change, ketamine can effectively rewire your brain around the intentions you set. I like to tell my clients to think of their brains as super-charged to create lasting change. So, for example, if your goal is to be happier, you can set your intention as “show me what is holding me back from being happy.” Ketamine will allow you to observe these thoughts without strong emotion attached. From this observational state you can identify key insights and then take advantage of your neuroplastic state by creating small daily action steps that rewire your thought patterns and increase your overall happiness. 

Gleb: One thing psychedelics are known for is “ego dissolution” and this disassociation from the “I” may be beneficial to one’s mental health in different ways. Psychedelics increase the brain’s ability to form new connections and generate new ideas. A lot of people are stuck within the narrative that they have subconsciously crafted about themselves and their world, and this can cause a lot of suffering. Psychedelics, when taken responsibly and with the proper therapeutic attention, can help individuals see outside of their personal narrative and connect with reality in a different way. These unique experiences, if encountered in the right set and setting, can alleviate distress and lead to greater wellbeing. 

Can you walk us through how the new telemedicine platform will work and who will be able to use it?

Gleb: It's a one-stop-shop for clinical consultations, getting treatments, and accessing training modules that teach the patient how to do breathwork, meditation, and other non-medicinal modalities that improve mental wellness. 

Our first treatment offering is Wonder Calm, which is for anxiety. Patients that are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder will be able to receive ketamine treatments as long as they meet a few basic health requirements. Prospective patients will go through a screening and intake process before meeting with a psychiatric clinician to determine their eligibility for the treatment and to customize their journey. The treatment includes ketamine sessions designed to be taken twice a week, a daily-use supplement that has anxiolytic (helps with anxiety) properties, and access to training modules on different modalities that take advantage of the increased neuroplastic window that ketamine provides. If eligible, patients are shipped a starter kit with ketamine lozenges for their first few sessions. We currently offer the lowest starting dose available on the market, one that decreases the risk profile for first-time patients but one that leads to a profound experience under the right setting. You can sign up for the waitlist at Wondersciences.com.

How does taking ketamine compare to antidepressants?

Gleb: Ketamine differs from traditional antidepressants in that it acts upon a different neurotransmitter network. [SSRIs are based on] the Monoamine hypothesis, which states that a deficiency in brain compounds like serotonin, dopamine or norepinephrine in the Central Nervous System cause symptoms of anxiety or depression. There are two problems with this theory: clinical studies trying to explain depressive or anxious symptoms by changing monoamine levels did not show a significant correlation and the pharmaceutical solutions that are designed based on this theory have been, at best, ineffective in a large proportion of the patient population, somewhere between 40-60%. At their worst, pharmaceutical antidepressants such as SSRIs have contributed to the mental health epidemic. 

All of our treatments and protocols, on the other hand, are developed with the Neuroplasticity theory, which proposes that symptoms of anxiety and depression come from a lack of cognitive flexibility, or neuroplasticity. This term refers to the brain’s ability to build new neurons and to form new connections between neurons, and studies have shown that neuroplasticity can be increased or trained. People suffering from anxiety and depression often get stuck in thought loops: this can be negative thoughts or feelings about oneself, their situation, about another person, and so on. Through psychotherapy, a therapist may try to identify these thought loops and help their patient form new ones, but they may be unable to due to low neuroplasticity. Ketamine has a rapid-onset increase on the neuroplastic window that lasts days after the drug is taken, so Ketamine-assisted psychotherapy [helps us] take advantage of that window, allowing for new thought patterns to be created that can alleviate the symptoms of psychological distress.                            

For those who want to try ketamine but are scared to try it, what would you tell them? 

Jose Munoz Aycart, Managing Director: The first thing we would tell them is to do their research. While we maintain that ketamine treatments, when taken responsibly, have a low biological risk profile, you will be taking a drug that alters your perception of reality, so this always introduces some risks. There are a lot of great articles, clinical studies and videos that provide information on the treatments that can help individuals decide if they want to try ketamine therapy. We would also tell them to look past the stigma of psychedelics and ketamine. We view ketamine as a medicine that has been clinically shown to be effective and that results in less dependence than current pharmaceutical solutions.

If someone were to take the low-dose ketamine you’re offering on the platform, what would it feel like?

Jose: People are still going to be pretty aware of their surroundings – they are not going to lose consciousness or go into a really deep psychedelic experience. We recommend that they have an “ally” (a friend, family member, or partner) with them throughout the experience. 

Alex: Most of the time, clients are going to be in a deeply meditative, peaceful state, and the ally is just there visually checking to make sure that everything is okay. But sometimes you can have a very strong emotional release, which can come in the form of laughing or crying. Patients have often told me they were sobbing, but had no emotion attached to it. It really is just a physical release. In those cases, the ally needs to be prepared to have tissues and to be there if the patient wants to have their hand held, but it’s also important that they don’t interrupt the journey. 

What does the future of psychedelics in mental healthcare hold?

Gleb: I see psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy gaining mainstream acceptance as an option for mental illness within the next 10 years. The clinical efficacy and the patient testimonials are very promising. I think that as the field develops, a psychiatric model akin to a shamanic experience will be formed. Clinicians will bring patients into a safe and nurturing environment that facilitates psychological breakthroughs and provide the therapeutic attention and integration necessary to apply their thoughts into their life. I love to visualize the image of a psychotherapist looking and acting more like a tribal shaman than a doctor. We need to be socially conscious of the groups that have been using psychedelic medicines for centuries, if not millennia. We definitely don’t want to make psychedelics more like pharmaceuticals, we want to make the pharmaceutical industry more psychedelic.

Jose: I think I would lead with [famous psychiatrist] Stan Grof’s quote, “psychedelics will be for the study of the mind what the telescope was for astronomy.” I think this quote reflects that the potential of psychedelics is near limitless. Psychedelics will lead to a proactive approach to mental healthcare, and the treatments can eventually become more preventative than just treating severe psychiatric illness.

Alex: I believe psychedelics will be a primary solution in mental health care and we will see a drastic decline in dependence on current pharmaceutical treatments such as benzodiazepines, antidepressants, and opioids. In 10 years, I hope that psychedelics are not just viewed as medication for those suffering with mental health disorders, but as a tool to be used in combination with mindfulness practices that help to raise the frequency of our collective consciousness. I see psychedelics as a key to self-exploration and the understanding of our interconnectedness, which in turn can help solve humanitarian crises, climate change, and other major problems we face as a collective. 

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