Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, the US, is launching a new psychedelic research centre where scientists will test the potential of so-called magic mushrooms and other drugs to treat some of the toughest mental health and addiction challenges.
The centre, which was announced on Sept 4, 2019, is believed to be the first in the US and the largest in the world to focus on drugs still better known as symbols of 1960s counterculture than serious medicine.
The Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research is being funded by a US$17 million (RM71 million) donation from a group of private donors. As federal funding cannot be used for such research, the centre needs private support.
Its research will focus on applications of the drugs for treating opioid addiction, Alzheimer’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders and depression, among other diseases.
“Psychedelics are a fascinating class of compounds,” said Dr Roland Griffiths, the centre’s director and a professor of behavioural biology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
“They produce a unique and profound change in consciousness. The centre will allow us to expand on research to develop new treatments for a wide variety of psychiatric disorders. And it will allow us to extend on past research in healthy people to improve their sense of well-being.”
In a statement, Johns Hopkins Medicine CEO and the School of Medicine dean Dr Paul B Rothman said: “Johns Hopkins is deeply committed to exploring innovative treatments for our patients. Our scientists have shown that psychedelics have real potential as medicine and this new centre will help us explore that potential.”
Illegal but potentially helpful
Psilocybin (also known as magic mushrooms) and MDMA (3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or more commonly known as ecstasy) are illegal drugs in the US, classified by the federal government alongside heroin and cocaine. Laws relating to salvia vary by each American state, but it’s illegal in most of them.
But researchers at Johns Hopkins and elsewhere have said that such drugs could help in areas of pain, addiction and brain disorders.
The centre is being funded by the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation and philanthropists like author and technology investor Tim Ferriss, WordPress co-
founder Matt Mullenweg, shoe company Toms founder Blake Mycoskie and investor Craig Nerenberg.
Ferriss said his interest in the drugs is personal – there is depression and brain disease among his family members and a good friend of his died of a drug overdose.
He said his contribution, between US$2mil and US$3mil ((RM8.4-RM12.5mil), is the largest investment he has made in a corporate or nonprofit endeavour. He said he was hoping to “affect the timeline” of US federal regulatory approvals for psychedelic drugs, though he opposed over-the-counter uses.
“Good science takes time,” he said, adding that he wanted to support “unlocking the full potential of productive teams”.
The centre will look at how psychedelics affect behaviour, brain function, learning and memory, the brain’s biology, and mood. The researchers said that they understood the risks and dangers of using psychedelic drugs that were not addictive, but could be abused, according to them.
They said they could control for potential abuse or bad outcomes, such as long-term effects of the drug’s use on those with undiagnosed mental health disorders, in a laboratory setting where people and drugs are carefully screened.
The US National Institute on Drug Abuse says there are many potential short- and long-term harms from hallucinogens. Users can see, hear and feel things that don’t exist – experiences that can be unpleasant, known as a “bad trip”.
Users can suffer from increased heart rate and blood pressure, nausea, intensified feelings, loss of appetite, sleep problems, excessive sweating and panic, though others may have intense spiritual experiences and feelings of relaxation. Users can also be a danger if they drive.
Over time, according to the institute, users can suffer persistent psychosis, visual disturbances, disorganised thinking, paranoia and mood changes, among other problems.
The institute said people can overdose on some hallucinogens, such as PCP (phencyclidine), though serious medical emergencies are not common and not associated with drugs typically used in the research.
Drugs can also be contaminated, and those trying to use psilocybin could consume poisonous mushrooms that look like the ones containing the compound. There are currently no federally-approved psychedelic drugs for medicinal purposes.
“The field is chock-full of lessons, and we take them seriously,” said Dr Matthew Johnson, the center’s assistant director and an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences in the medical school.
But he said the potential benefits could be enormous. “Overall, we see psilocybin as paradigm shift, a game-changer in treating mental health disorders,” he said. “That, and for addiction, which is causing a staggering number of deaths.”
The rate of fatal opioid overdoses is likely to make use of psilocybin more acceptable to the public, after a so-called war on drugs in the 1970s and ‘80s stymied all research into psychedelic substances for decades, said Sara Lappan, a visiting instructor at the counselling programme in the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s department of human studies.
Lappan is working on a study using psilocybin to treat addiction to cocaine, a drug that has been making a comeback among users after years of decline. The study is among a handful around the country testing psilocybin for a variety of treatments.
It aims to give people “the ability to change” because of how they view themselves. It’s like giving them “10 years of therapy smashed into six hours”, she said.
Researchers, she said, hope to eventually use their scientific data to change the legal status of the drug, although she said she knew of no researcher that wants recreational use of psilocybin. And she agreed that the studies have shown promise because the participants and the substances are carefully screened.
“Across the board, there are really promising findings,” she said of the small circle of researchers’ studies.
At Johns Hopkins, the funding is expected to support five years of research and a team of six faculty neuroscientists, experimental psychologists and clinicians. It will also fund five postdoctoral scientists, and train graduate and medical students who want to pursue careers in psychedelic science.
The potential therapies are likely to please advocates for psychedelics, in part because research won’t be limited to those suffering a devastating brain disorder.
“In addition to studies on new therapeutics,” Prof Griffiths said in his statement, “we plan to investigate creativity and well-being in healthy volunteers that we hope will open up new ways to support human thriving.” – The Baltimore Sun/Tribune News Service