New $17M Johns Hopkins research center to study psychedelic drugs in Alzheimer's, addiction and more

Although psychedelics such as LSD and psilocybin—the chemical found in so-called magic mushrooms—have shown promise in the treatment of multiple diseases, research into these drugs has been stymied by national laws and international conventions. Johns Hopkins University is trying to remedy that with a new, privately funded center for psychedelic research. 

The Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins Medicine is the first such center in the U.S. and the largest in the world. 

“In the absence of federal funding for such therapeutic research, the new center will rely on gifts from private donors,” the university said in a blog post. It’s starting out with $17 million in funding from a handful of philanthropists including Matt Mullenweg, the co-founder of WordPress, and the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation. 

The Johns Hopkins center will study how psychedelics affect behavior, brain function, learning and memory, the biology of the brain, and mood. It will build on the university’s earlier work in psilocybin, focused on studying the chemical’s potential as a treatment for diseases and conditions such as opioid addiction, Alzheimer's disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome, anorexia nervosa and alcohol use in people with major depression. 

According to Scientific American, more than 1,000 scientific publications through the mid-1960s have described how LSD could be used alongside psychotherapy to make it more effective. And doctors started using MDMA as an adjunct treatment to talk therapy in the 1970s. But psychedelic research reached a standstill with the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which proclaimed these drugs to have “no currently accepted medical use” and classified them as Schedule I drugs. 

The result is what many call a regulatory Catch-22: Psychedelics are banned because they have no accepted medical use, but researchers can’t prove they have a medical use because they are banned. 

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In 2000, Johns Hopkins' psychedelic research group was the first to win approval in the U.S. to carry out a study in healthy people who had never used this type of drug. Over the years, they have authored more than 60 journal articles and published safety guidelines to help others get approval to study psychedelics. Their research has shown psilocybin to have low toxicity and abuse potential in spite of its labeling as a Schedule I substance, the university said. 

“The group's findings on both the promise and the risks of psilocybin in particular helped create a path forward for the chemical's potential medical approval and reclassification from a Schedule I drug, the most restrictive federal government category, to a more appropriate level,” the university said. 

The $17 million will provide five years of support to a team of six faculty neuroscientists, experimental psychologists and clinicians who specialize in psychedelic science as well as five postdoctoral scientists. The faculty will train graduate and medical students interested in psychedelic science. 

“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," said Roland Griffiths, the center's director and professor of behavioral biology in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and the department of neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "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."