Breakthrough research is putting the spotlight on the therapeutic benefits of psychedelic drugs, a class of drugs that had been neglected by scientists for decades. New clinical studies are beginning to show that psychedelics–in particular, psilocybin, the psychoactive compound found in hallucinogenic mushrooms–could have enormous potential for treating a wide range of neurological and psychiatric conditions.

Using psychedelic drugs to treat brain disorders is not a new area of study, but political and cultural pressure had halted research for decades. In the 1950s, scientists began to look into the possibility that LSD could be used to treat, among other disorders, alcohol addiction. Although the research showed promise, the association of psychedelic drugs with 1960s counterculture was difficult to shake, and new laws established during the Nixon administration effectively ended almost all research involving the substances.

Not until the turn of the century did research finally resume. In 2000, a group at Johns Hopkins University led by Roland Griffiths, PhD, was granted approval by the Food and Drug Administration to begin new studies involving psilocybin. The group’s publication of positive results in 2006 helped to initiate a new wave of research.

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The team at Johns Hopkins went on to publish their work in dozens of peer-reviewed articles, and their studies showed that psilocybin has promise for treating disorders as diverse as nicotine addiction and major depression. The success of their work has not only helped to broaden the understanding of how psychedelics can be used to treat brain disorders, but it has also encouraged other scientists to venture into this once-taboo area of research.

In 2019, the university secured private funding to establish the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research. Under the direction of Griffiths, the center will conduct research on the effects of psychedelic drugs on brain biology and function, behavior, mood, learning, and memory. The center’s researchers will also pursue studies of psilocybin as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), opioid addiction, post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome, anorexia nervosa, and major-depression-associated alcohol abuse.

“The center’s establishment reflects a new era of research in therapeutics and the mind through studying this unique and remarkable class of pharmacological compounds,” says Griffiths. “In addition to studies on new therapeutics, we plan to investigate creativity and well-being in healthy volunteers that we hope will open up new ways to support human thriving.

New Frontiers

Johns Hopkins is not the only place where new research on psychedelic therapies is producing exciting results. At New York University’s Langone Medical Center, Michael P. Bogenschutz, MD, is leading research that uses psilocybin to treat alcohol dependence. In Bogenschutz’s studies, participants are given controlled doses of psilocybin followed by motivational therapy sessions, all of which are carefully monitored and supported by therapists.

ABS is proud to be supporting Dr. Bogenschutz’s research and making a major impact by raising money to fund research projects that are critical to opening the pathway to cure brain diseases & mental health disorders.

The initial stages of the research have produced results that suggest psilocybin can significantly improve drinking behavior in patients with alcohol dependence problems.

“People have uniformly reported strong decreases in their craving for alcohol and increased salience in some of their positive values like family, religion, health, productivity, and being a useful member of society. They felt rejuvenated and optimistic,” Bogenschutz says. “There really haven’t been any significant adverse effects to date.”

Psychedelics and the Brain

It’s not yet clear how psychedelics can help counter the effects of brain disorders. Early research in using LSD to treat alcohol dependence speculated that a “bad trip” could produce a frightening experience that would shock participants into changing their drinking behavior, a sort of “rock bottom” that would inspire them to do better.

However, while some participants in modern psychedelic studies do report having a negative experience, the majority say that their experiences are more enlightening than frightening. Participants often say the experience causes them to see beyond their own thoughts, to stop seeing themselves as the center of the universe, to have a diminished sense of their personal identity. The feelings can be transformative and may have an impact on behavior well beyond the psychedelic experience.

From a neurological perspective, the experience might be the result of new pathways being forged in the brain. Researchers think that psychedelics may open up interaction between parts of the brain that usually remain relatively isolated from one another. The effect might be as specific as being able to “hear” colors during a psychedelic experience or as broad as acquiring a new and different sense of one’s place in the world.

A Struggle for Funding

Although the legal prohibition on psychedelic research has been lifted, finding funding for the research remains a challenge. Government funding for studies is sparse to non-existent, leaving researchers to turn to private sources for support. The Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins, for example, was established thanks to a $17-million contribution by a group of private donors, and contributions from a small number of philanthropists will fund the first five years of the center’s operations.

The funding model points out just how difficult it is to keep this ground-breaking research going. But it’s work that needs to be done, says Alex Cohen, president of the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation, one of the center’s supporters.

“We have to take braver and bolder steps if we want to help those suffering from chronic illness, addiction and mental health challenges. By investing in the Johns Hopkins center, we are investing in the hope that researchers will keep proving the benefits of psychedelics — and people will have new ways to heal.”

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