Published on
June 14, 2022

Amanda Feilding | Founder and Executive Director, Beckley Foundation

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Amanda Feilding
Founder and Executive Director

Amanda Feilding is the Founder and Executive Director of the Beckley Foundation, and is widely recognised as a leading force behind the current Psychedelic Renaissance. By establishing key Research Programmes at some of the world’s most prestigious institutions (including Imperial College London, Maastricht University, Sant Pau in Barcelona, IDOR and UFRN in Brazil), she has propelled the field forward over the last 20+ years, conducting landmark studies, such as the world’s first psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression study (on which Compass Pathways based their business), the world’s first LSD, MDMA and DMT brain imaging studies, plus the initiation and collaboration with Johns Hopkins on the first study using psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy to overcome nicotine addiction. She has also co-authored over 80 research papers.

Since its inception in 1998, the Beckley Foundation has been at the forefront of exploratory research into psychedelics and cannabis, and evidence-based global drug policies. Through a series of pivotal international seminars at the House of Lords (starting in 2000) with leading figures from around the world in different fields, from science to politics, plus over 60 much-cited books, reports and papers, and numerous meetings with thought-leaders, academics, and policy-makers at the UN and governments around the world, Amanda has ensured that the Beckley Foundation has been at the forefront of global drug policy reform, particularly in the field of cannabis and the psychedelics.

Through her work with the Beckley Foundation, Amanda is bridging the gap between science and policy, creating a positive feedback loop, with the aim of building and harnessing our knowledge of the benefits of currently prohibited compounds to optimise human health, wellbeing and potential.

How did your own personal experiences with psychedelics influence your decision to dedicate your life to advocating for psychedelic research?

From an early age, I’ve had a passion for mysticism and altered states of consciousness. I was introduced to LSD in 1965 at the height of the first psychedelic wave through which I encountered the state described by the mystics. I became fascinated with the scientific question: what physiological processes underlie this heightened state of consciousness? 

Unfortunately, in 1966 my coffee was spiked with what might have been a thousand doses of LSD. My psyche was damaged and once I regained consciousness, I retreated to a hut in the countryside, and pulled the fragments of my shattered psyche back together. This might have put me off psychedelics for life but, by good fate, I soon afterwards met Bart Huges, a Dutch scientist of exceptional insight, who had developed a hypothesis of how changes in brain blood supply underlies the psychedelic state, and a protocol for how one could maintain control over one's expanded consciousness. With this new understanding, we were able to use LSD as a tool to enhance our creativity, sharpen our cognitive abilities, and gain a deeper insight into the human condition. I was made aware that psychedelics are an invaluable tool to enhance human consciousness, and in the context of psychotherapy, get to the root cause of, and wash out repressed trauma. It was then that I knew my mission in life: to better understand the neurophysiology underlying altered states, so that we might more easily integrate their advantages into society.

What is the mission of the Beckley Foundation? 

The mission of the Beckley Foundation is two-fold: to initiate exploratory and clinical research into psychoactive compounds, and to drive evidence-based drug policy reform, as is necessary in order to do the research.

At its inception in 1998, however, it was in fact my latest artwork, to turn myself into a Foundation! I was determined to understand the neurobiological mechanisms underlying the mind-altering effects of psychedelics, but they had become so taboo that it was almost impossible to find scientists or institutions willing to get involved, and face the regulatory barriers to conducting the research. As a female with no letters after my name, it was just impossible to reform global drug policy and open the doors to research.

I therefore decided to become a Foundation, as a Trojan Horse to enter the citadel of the Establishment. I had no funding, but I was lucky enough to have the support of many brilliant and courageous scientists who agreed to join my scientific advisory board, starting with Albert Hofmann.

As a foundation, my first undertaking was to advocate for drug policy reform. I therefore set about organizing high-level international seminars at the House of Lords, where I invited top-level scientists and politicians to discuss why cannabis and psychedelics were a different class of compounds, and therefore should be treated in different ways.

On the scientific side, the first study I conducted was in 1998 with Franz Vollenweider, using PET to examine the changes in cerebral circulation brought about by psilocybin. Later, I persuaded Prof David Nutt, then professor of neuropharmacology in Bristol, to collaborate with me in investigating cannabis and psychedelics. A few years later in 2007, when David moved to Imperial College London, we began the Beckley/Imperial Research Programme, co-directed by David and me, with Robin Carhart-Harris as our Principal Investigator.

Now, we have laid the groundwork to widen the scope of psychedelic research, to find new therapeutic applications, and have made great strides towards the availability of psychedelic medicines.

What has been some of the most exciting or interesting research, in your opinion, that the Beckley Foundation has published or supported?

From the beginning, my great ambition was to use neuroimaging research to reveal the neural underpinnings of LSD’s effects, which in turn evoke such profound self-realisations and changes in behaviour. However, LSD was still too taboo wrapped in 50 years of toxic media, so we had to start with psilocybin, a word not many people had heard of.

At the newly formed Beckley/Imperial Psychedelic Research Programme, our first study was an fMRI study of the brain on psilocybin, which had two important findings: one was a decreased blood supply to the default mode network (DMN), and the other a great increase in global functional connectivity. Since hyperactivity in the DMN underlies many psychological illnesses such as depression, addiction, and anxiety among others, our next research was to explore psilocybin-assisted therapy for treatment-resistant depression. A proof-of-concept study, published in the Lancet in 2016, had very positive results, with a much greater reduction in symptoms of depression than what is achieved by current SSRI and talk therapy. This study had a very high impact, and started the first wave of interest for psychedelic-assisted therapy for the treatment of depression.

LSD, however, remained my preferred compound of investigation. In 2015, we were finally able to conduct the first neuroimaging study, combining fMRI and MEG, to investigate the effects of a full dose of LSD in resting-state conditions. This is the study I had waited and waited for for 50 years! Consistent with previous neuroimaging studies using psilocybin, we found a disintegration of the DMN during the experience, which correlated with self-reported ‘ego dissolution’. This allowed for greater connectivity between usually separated brain regions, allowing for wider and more integrated communication between networks. Subsequent studies illustrated how LSD enhances brain entropy, inducing a state in which maladaptive and pathological thought patterns can be reset in a more positive fashion. Collectively, these studies were the first to inform the scientific basis for the use of LSD as an aid to psychotherapy.

In what ways can psychedelic medicines benefit psychiatry and psychotherapy?

We are now in an epidemic of mental illness in the Western world, and current treatments are inadequate. The first line of treatment for depression is typically SSRIs which at best, suppress symptoms, and for around 30% remain ineffective. We are in desperate need of a new approach to psychiatric treatments, which psychedelics offer.

When used in the context of psychotherapy, psychedelics show a remarkable efficacy in treating many intractable psychological ailments. It is like heating metal, the brain becomes more fluid and ‘plastic’, which enables people to change their thought patterns and behaviour.

Rigorous pre-clinical and clinical trials are currently underway investigating both classical psychedelics and their derivatives for treating numerous psychological and neurological indications - psilocybin for depression and end-of-life related anxiety, LSD for general anxiety and neurodegenerative disorders, MDMA for PTSD, Ibogaine for addiction, 5-MeO-DMT for cluster headaches, the list goes on.

2018 and 2019 saw the FDA designate psilocybin therapy as a breakthrough treatment for treatment-resistant depression and major depressive disorder respectively. This was after MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD was granted breakthrough status by the FDA in 2017. Reserved for cases where preliminary clinical evidence demonstrates substantial improvement over other available therapies, this is a testament to the growing recognition of the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.

More recently, a placebo-controlled trial conducted in 2021 demonstrated that psilocybin was at least as effective, if not slightly more so, than the established and conventional SSRI antidepressant, escitalopram. Building on our initial findings, a recent analysis by Imperial synthesised two published studies and showed that the improvements in depression severity following psilocybin-assisted therapy were associated with a global increase in brain network integration, whilst escitalopram induced no such changes in brain network organisation. Whereas SSRIs need to be taken daily, and psychotherapy alone can take years to take effect, a single psychedelic experience can help unravel memories and emotions and address the traumas at the root of their suffering.

What validation have you seen for LSD as a treatment option for mental health issues?

 When it first appeared in the 1950s, LSD was considered a new wonder drug in psychiatry. Hundreds of published papers and thousands of patient reports testified to its promise for a wide range of illnesses, such as depression, addiction and PTSD.

After a long hiatus, there is now a revived interest in LSD, starting with the beautiful scans of the brain on LSD that we produced in collaboration with Imperial back in 2016. These showed that LSD loosens the ego mechanism and is able to rewire maladaptive patterns of thoughts, reconfirming what anecdotal and clinical research from the 50s and 60s had already established. We have also found, through a collaboration with leading neuroscientists in Brazil, that LSD decreases neuroinflammation, and enhances neuroplasticity and neurogenesis, which may help combat the key biomarkers seen in many psychological and neurological disorders.

Beyond the full dose, I have from the 60s been very positive about the effects of microdosing, and in 2020, collaborated with Maastricht University to carry out a microdosing study with LSD. In the safety and dose-finding study, we showed for the first time the benefits of LSD microdosing for mood, focus, and pain management, and how it increased a marker of neuroplasticity BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor). We have just completed our second study with Maastricht, looking in greater detail at the effect of LSD microdoses on neuroplasticity, and how it relates to its positive impact on mood and cognition.

But there is much we must do to unravel the mysteries of this compound, before they are re-introduced into psychiatry and psychotherapy. Whilst psilocybin has attracted much attention in mental health care, I am currently exploring funding options for a new programme of studies exploring LSD in greater depth than ever before.

Why do you feel that evidence-based research is critical for addressing drug policy reform?

In recent times, we are finally accepting that the War-on-Drugs has been a complete failure, with continually rising drug-related deaths, and devastating consequences on public health. Under this regime, drug policy has been driven by socio-political ideologies. All these substances which differ in properties and subjective effects have been grouped under an illegal status, where more often than not, the impact of criminalisation is far worse than the effect of drug use. 

To move away from this approach, and put public health at the centre of drug policy requires an evidence-base which objectively classifies the harms and benefits of different drugs. I firmly believe that the best approach to drug policy is a strictly regulated market based on scientific evidence, where the main aims are to protect health, minimise harms, be cost-effective and respect human rights.

What do you see as the greatest challenge in the global drug policy reform process for psychedelics? 

The challenge in global drug policy reform seems to have shifted over these past few years. When I started the Beckley Foundation, and up until about five years ago, the real challenge was to overcome the deeply rooted taboo surrounding these compounds, a task which, together with other like-minded non-profit organisations, we managed with great success (although some taboo withstands, it is now only a matter of time).

In my opinion, the new challenge we are facing is that, as an unavoidable price of our success, psychedelics attract more and more attention, and a growing number of new players come to this promising field with no or little understanding of what these compounds are and how they work. Psychedelics work in a very different way to any of the existing pharmaceutical compounds we’re used to. They are powerful substances which, when used in the right way, as has been the case in modern clinical research to date, are able to produce tremendous positive breakthroughs, but if misused, could cause less positive effects, particularly in the most vulnerable people. I feel there is an understandable concern among regulators that the safety of these compounds is not yet fully established. Indeed, there is a vast gap between the high standards of clinical trials and the large-scale administration of psychedelic-assisted therapy. How are we going to ensure the high standards applied in clinical research are maintained? Last year saw a rise in the number of unfortunate reports from people who felt they had not received appropriate professional care during their therapy. If we are not more careful, more incidents like that could seriously compromise the whole field. This problem, which is of course also present in any other forms of therapies, is particularly important to address when it comes to psychedelic therapy, which tends to temporarily place people in a more vulnerable and plastic state.

We are at an important turning point in the psychedelic ‘renaissance’ and must remain extremely cautious not to cut any corners.

You’ve been called the 'hidden hand’ behind the renaissance of psychedelic science. Do you feel that is true? How has the Beckley Foundation impacted psychedelic research? 

I have dedicated my life to understanding the mechanism of action of psychedelics, and how one can harness its full potential to enhance health and wellbeing - it is wonderful to be recognised for my contributions.

I do believe that research generated by the Beckley Foundation, as well as other non-profit organisations such as MAPS and the Heffter Institute have inspired the global movement to develop psychedelic-assisted therapy as a new, more efficacious treatment for many mental health disorders. Through the Beckley Foundation, I have been able to do some fascinating exploratory work, and undertake many ‘firsts’, most famously, the first neuroimaging studies of LSD, MDMA and DMT, and the first study looking into the potential of psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy to overcome treatment-resistant depression, which has since been used as the basis of the first ‘unicorn’ company in the psychedelic sector.

What was initially a purely philanthropically-funded field of research is now attracting a new wave of interest from investors, which I have always thought is necessary to cover the costs of clinical trials and scalable care delivery. The Beckley Foundation, however, will continue to play a crucial role in the psychedelic ecosystem, with cutting edge exploratory research, free from the profit motives, to push the limits of our knowledge about psychedelics and explore new therapeutic applications.

What is the Global Initiative for Drug Policy Reform and what milestones have you made with it?

In the Autumn of 2002, I commenced a series of nine seminars titled ‘Society and Drugs: A Rational Perspective’, where I drew together leading thought figures to share knowledge, foster collaborations, and debate ways forward to reform global drug policy.

The ninth and final seminar, organised in partnership with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform, initiated the Beckley Foundation's Global Initiative for Drug Policy Reform. I brought together political leaders from 14 countries interested in alternative policies, as well as members of the Global Commission of Drug Policy Reform. For this initiative, I commissioned two reports. Firstly, Roadmaps to Reforming the UN Drug Conventions which explains in detail how the UN Drug Conventions could be amended to give countries greater freedom to adopt policies better suited to their individual needs, such as decriminalisation and regulation. The second report titled Licensing and Regulation of the Cannabis Market in England and Wales: Towards a Cost-Benefit Analysis was the first of its kind to quantify the fiscal and social benefits of a regulated and taxed cannabis market.

To coincide with the launch of this initiative, the Beckley Foundation launched the Public Letter, advising reform of failed drug policies and encouraging an open debate on alternative approaches. It was signed by 9 presidents, including Jimmy Carter, 13 Nobel Laureates, and a host of other international luminaries including Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

What do you believe is the most common misconception about psychedelics?

 One common misconception about psychedelics is their safety profile. Psilocybin, MDMA, and LSD are all classified as Schedule 1 substances, a label for compounds that have no medical utility and a high potential for abuse, whilst more dangerous and highly addictive drugs, including heroin and cocaine are in Schedule 2.

Their Schedule 1 classification negates the scientific evidence rigorously gathered over the past 15 years, supporting both the safety profile and medical utility of these psychedelic drugs. They consistently rank among the safest of psychoactive drugs: there are no chronic harms associated with repeated use, and they are not dependency forming. Although taking these drugs outside of the clinical setting involves some risk, recreational use is associated with particularly low rates of seeking emergency medical treatment. Importantly, both psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression and MDMA for PTSD, have been designated breakthrough status by the FDA, marking them invaluable compounds for psychiatry, highly inconsistent with the narrative that has been used to lock these compounds away from public consumption.

What obstacles need to be overcome to bring psychedelic therapies to patients? What do you think fundamentally needs to change in order for there to be broader medical accessibility? 

The majority of access to psychedelic-assisted therapy will come from retreats and clinics in territories where it is legal. There has been an explosion of interest in this area, and many countries across Europe and America are now offering services to meet this new demand. Ketamine-assisted therapy is now widely available across the US, Canada and Europe, and psilocybin retreats are now legally accessible in many countries across Europe and Latin America. However, with a lot of the news that has come out about this space, I think it is more urgent than ever to develop safe yet affordable options for psychedelic therapy and retreats, that allow for an individualized rather than standardised approach to treatment.
Broader medical accessibility, however, requires legislative change. Rescheduling psilocybin as a Schedule 2 drug would greatly increase access for researchers, to widen our understanding of psychedelics and their mechanism of action. It would also enable doctors to prescribe to those in need without any change to legislation governing recreational use. There is also the other bottleneck of trained therapists that are able to guide the psychedelic therapy session. Overcoming these obstacles is necessary to make the treatments available for patients in need, and hopefully widen the spectrum of compassionate use.