Hopkins Medicine is launching a new center to study psychedelics, the first institution of its kind in the U.S. and one of only a few around the world investigating these types of compounds. The new Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, announced on Sept. 4, will support research focusing on the effects of psychedelic drugs on the brain and mental disorders.
Psychedelic drugs primarily trigger an altered state of consciousness, and include compounds such as LSD, psilocybin and mescaline. Some of these are well known as recreational drugs; psilocybin, for instance, is found in what are commonly known as “magic mushrooms.”
Sophomore Dylan Peters, who is majoring in Neuroscience and will be working in the new center as a research intern, explained why psychedelics are such a promising option for the treatment of mental health disorders.
“One of the novel components of psilocybin is that it’s basically a mental reset,” Peters said. “Under its influence, people going through a psychedelic session are able to use their brain in ways that they’re not able to with everyday waking consciousness.”
In 2000, a research group at Hopkins Medicine began studying the effect of psychedelics on healthy individuals, and was the first group to receive regulatory approval in the U.S. in order to do so. Six years later, the researchers published work on psilocybin, reporting that it could be administered in a way that was safe and resulted in reasonably reliable and lasting positive behavioral changes.
This research sparked interest in the investigation of psychedelic substances around the world. Subsequent studies of psilocybin at Hopkins Medicine have laid the foundation for clinical trials that could support a change in the drug’s federal classification from the most restrictive Schedule I to the much less restrictive Schedule IV.
Dr. James Potash, Henry Phipps professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Hopkins Medicine, explained that psychedelics are an exciting avenue for the treatment of mental disorders because nearly all of the medicines currently available in psychiatry were discovered in the 1950s and 60s.
According to Potash, there were not many medical innovations in psychiatry until 2019.
“Although the medicines we have in general in psychiatry are pretty good, and they certainly help, mental illness is extremely common and extremely debilitating,” he said. “There are just a lot of people who don’t get well on the medicines we have, so something that has the potential to help the people who haven’t been is a big, big deal.”
Planned areas of investigation for the new center include looking at the effect of psychedelics on eating disorders, early Alzheimer’s disease, opioid addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder, among other conditions.
Peters expressed his interest in using these substances to advance the field of neuroscience.
“I want to use [psychedelics] as a tool to understand how our brains work and the neurochemical processes that govern our cognitive makeup,” he said.
Work at the center will involve clinical trials, which will be carried out in a format similar to that of current psychedelic research being done at Hopkins Medicine. Potash explained how these trials differ from traditional clinical trials in psychiatry.
“The protocol that’s used here at Johns Hopkins in using psilocybin to treat depression is different in that it involves much more conversation; essentially what amounts to psychotherapy around the use of the medication,” he said.
The trials consist of two four-hour talking sessions before the psilocybin is given, followed by a five to six hour trip, guided by a psychotherapist. After the patient uses the psilocybin, they participate in additional talking sessions to discuss the meaning of their trip and how to integrate the knowledge and experience gained from their treatment into their daily lives.
Doses given during the trial are higher than those typically taken recreationally, and previous studies have observed that the more intense an individual’s trip, the longer the effects of the treatment will be.
Psychedelic research does not currently receive any federal funding, but the center at Hopkins Medicine has received 17 million dollars from private donors, and will continue to be supported by private donors for five years.
Potash explained that the establishment of this new center is due, in part, to a book called How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan.
“When that book came out last year, it was number one on The New York Times Best Seller list for a while and many people read it, including a couple of people who had the capacity to provide a large donation,” Potash said.
One major donor, entrepreneur and author Tim Ferriss, expressed his hope that the center’s establishment would support the training of a new generation of psychedelic researchers, as well as lead to the foundation of similar institutions elsewhere.
Potash anticipates that the results of his research will lead to the allocation of federal funds for the study of psychedelics.
“Federal funding is likely to come if the studies that are ongoing already, and the new studies at our new center, are positive and are promising,” Potash said.
While many are excited about the new center, there are still concerns over the possible dangers of psychedelic drugs. Potash explained how these substances are like other medications in that they can be dangerous if misused, but that they may still have the potential to benefit patients.
“Opioid medicines have been our best pain medicines for 100 years; now, we know they can be used irresponsibly and cause a lot of problems,” he said. “On the one hand, we have to think about the risk-benefit issues, but on the other we need to apply our usual tools of medical science to rigorously study whether or not psychedelics can actually help in particular conditions, like depression.”
Potash encouraged students who are interested in the field to enroll in courses in psychology and neuroscience in order to get a background in mental health.
For those intrigued by psychedelic research, there may be opportunities for undergraduates at Hopkins to get involved in positions like Peters currently holds.