Johns Hopkins Medical has announced a new Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, funded with $17 million from private donors. This is the first such center in the country, and is believed to be the largest in the world.

Frederick Barrett, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, said the goal of the center is to identify brain mechanisms and blood biomarkers in order to predict how patients may react to psychedelic treatments.

"Research on psychedelic substances is still in its infancy," he said, in a prepared statement.

Psychedelic substances such as psilocybin (found in many mushrooms), lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), and methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) alter a patient's consciousness over the course of hours, but Barrett said they could also have therapeutic effects on patients with illnesses including Alzheimer disease, anorexia nervosa, opioid addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other conditions.

Studies conducted by the center are expected to focus on how psychedelics affect behavior, brain function, learning, memory, brain biology, and mood, all in order to identify possible therapies which could be tailored to patients' unique needs.

While this center is the first of its kind in the country, the Johns Hopkins Psychedelic Research Unit has been working on similar research for decades. In 2000, they were the first to achieve regulatory approval in the United States to reinitiate research with psychedelics in health volunteers who had never before used psychedelic substances. The researchers have since published studies in over 60 peer-reviewed journal articles, and have identified therapeutic benefits for people suffering from nicotine addiction and depression or anxiety caused by life-threatening diseases.

The unit's research on psilocybin also helped create a path forward for its potential medical approval and reclassification from a Schedule I drug, which Barrett said is crucial to their current research plans.

Barrett added that the Johns Hopkins researchers are interested in other psychedelic substances, such as LSD and MDMA, but their current projects will be focusing on psilocybin. Research on the substance over the last decade have demonstrated that it has a low toxicity and abuse potential, which Barrett said allows them to gain approval.

"At the moment, there seems to be the greatest amount of clinical data for psilocybin, so of course we want to add to that momentum," he said.

Barrett said that they're still working to understand psilocybin's mechanisms of action. There are several theories, however, which Barrett said all have merit.

One possibility is that psychedelic substances can alter patients' repetitive ways of thinking and increase psychological flexibility, which allows them to recover from their illnesses. Other theories argue that psychedelics allow patients to gain personal insights into their behaviors, or that they shift the balances of negative and positive emotions.

Understanding these possibilities is Barrett's goal.

"We really need to be investigating all of these mechanisms to see if any of them bear fruit," he said.

Although they've obtained the funding necessary to begin work, there is still a long process ahead to get all of the studies off the ground. Two studies will be recruiting soon, Barrett said, including 1 researching the effects of psychedelics on Alzheimer disease, and another analyzing its effects on patients with anorexia nervosa. After that, other studies will include mood disorders, PTSD, and other potential areas where psychedelic substances could be therapeutic.


Reference

Johns Hopkins Launches Center for Psychedelic Research. Johns Hopkins Medicine Newsroom. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/newsroom/news-releases/johns-hopkins-launches-center-for-psychedelic-research. Published September 4, 2019. Accessed September 6, 2019.