On Wednesday, Johns Hopkins Medicine announced the launch of the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, to study compounds like LSD and psilocybin for a range of mental health problems, including anorexia, addiction and depression. The center is the first of its kind in the country, established with $17 million in commitments from wealthy private donors and a foundation. Imperial College London launched what is thought to be the world’s first such center in April, with some $3.5 million from private sources.
The centers at Johns Hopkins and Imperial College give “psychedelic medicine,” as some call it, a long-sought foothold in the scientific establishment. Since the early 2000s, several scientists have been exploring the potential of psychedelics and other recreational drugs for psychiatric problems, and their early reports have been tantalizing enough to generate a stream of positive headlines and at least two popular books. The emergence of depression treatment with the anesthetic and club drug ketamine and related compounds, which cause out-of-body sensations, also has piqued interest in mind-altering agents as aids to therapy.
The scientists doing the work, at Hopkins, Imperial College and elsewhere, acknowledge as much, and say the new infusion of funding will help clarify which drugs help which patients, and when the altered states are ineffectual, or potentially dangerous.
Trials using psychedelics or other mind-altering drugs tend to have a similar structure. Participants, whether they have a diagnosis of PTSD, depression or substance abuse, do extensive preparation with a therapist, which includes a complete medical history and advice and information about the study drug. People with a history of psychosis are typically excluded, as psychedelics can exacerbate their condition. And those on psychiatric medications usually taper off beforehand.
On treatment day, the person comes into the clinic, takes the drug and sits or lies down, under continuous observation by a therapist, who provides support and occasional guidance as the drug’s effects become felt. In the Johns Hopkins trial, participants wore eyeshades and headphones, lay down and listened to music.