“Just a few decades ago, the approach would have been unfathomable to many. Using psychedelic drugs to treat people with PTSD? Depression? Addiction? To make them stop smoking? To perhaps treat Alzheimer’s? Wow. Just say no. Weren’t these the drugs we were told growing up gave you emotional disorders? But times have changed, and today, as with so many other cultural shifts, people are taking a second look at some of the things considered taboo not so long ago. And it just could be that the same generation that popularized the drugs could benefit from their therapeutic potential.
Roland R. Griffiths, Ph.D., a psychopharmacologist and professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and the Department of Neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said in an interview that the approach could offer “an entirely new paradigm for treating psychiatric disorders.”
He should know. Griffiths initiated the psilocybin research program at Johns Hopkins almost 20 years ago and led studies investigating the effects of its use by healthy volunteers. His research group at Johns Hopkins was the first to obtain regulatory approval in the U.S. to re-initiate research with psychedelics in psychedelic-naïve healthy volunteers in 2000. Griffiths said his group’s 2006 publication in the journal Psychopharmacology on psilocybin is widely considered the landmark study that sparked a renewal of psychedelic research worldwide.
Griffiths will head up the new Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins Medicine. The first of its kind in the U.S. and the largest research center of its kind in the world, the center is being funded initially by a $17 million donation from a group of private donors to advance the emerging field of psychedelics for therapies and wellness. The center will house a team of six faculty neuroscientists, experimental psychologists, and clinicians with expertise in psychedelic science, as well as five postdoctoral scientists. Graduate and medical students who want to work in psychedelic science, but have had few avenues to study in such a field, will be trained at the center.
Psychedelics are a class of pharmacological compounds that produce unique and profound changes of consciousness. The most common psychedelics are psilocybin, LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), DMT (dimethyltryptamine), and mescaline. Much of Griffiths’ work is focused on psilocybin, the chemical found in so-called magic mushrooms.
Although research with these compounds began in the 1950s and 1960s in America, Griffiths said it was the “cultural trauma” of the psychedelic 60s—which included some adverse effects of the compounds—that ended it in the early 1970s. The unfavorable media coverage that ensued resulted in misperceptions of the risks of the drugs and highly restrictive regulations.
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