From left to right, panelists Drs. Matthew Johnson, David Nichols, and Mendel Kaelen discussed the promise of psychedelics research. PHOTO COURTESY OF ANDRIJA DIMITRIJEVIC/MAPPING THE MIND

The promise of psychedelics research in a wide range of fields was explored at the Mapping the Mind: 2019 Psychedelic Science Conference at U of T’s Earth Sciences Centre in September.

Psychedelics are a class of mind-altering chemicals with therapeutic potential. The conference aimed to promote public education of psychedelic science and research in the field. It featured 10 speakers, including U of T professors, from a wide array of fields, such as psychiatry, pharmacology, and law.

Each speaker discussed their unique perspective on the future of psychedelic research.

Dr. David Nichols: psychedelic science researcher

The conference began with Dr. David Nichols, a respected pharmacologist and medicinal chemist from Purdue University, who has been widely known for his prolific work on psychedelic science since 1969.

Nichols has mainly worked with rats to study the effect of psychedelics on animal brains. Over his years of research, he has developed a strong faith in the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.

Patients with mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety, often display dysfunctional brain connectivity. Psychedelics can be used for treatment in these cases because they lead to a global increase in brain cell communications.

When Nichols began psychedelics research he faced difficulties receiving funding, as well as controversy due to the subject of his research. However, Nichols has described the field in recent years as “blossoming,” as it begins to demonstrate some promising prospects.

In support of psychedelic science research, Nichols founded the Heffter Research Institute in 1993. The institute works closely with some of the top universities in the world such as Johns Hopkins University, New York University, Yale University, and the University of Zurich.

“What we work on today, [I] never imagined we’d have them in my lifetime,” Nichols said. When asked about his hope for the future, he commented, “[If] at least the trajectory is going in the right direction, I will be happy.”

In the future, when patients find themselves in crisis, Nichols hopes that they can experience at least one psychedelic session with their psychiatrists. His vision for the future was met with lasting applause from the audience.

Dr. Srinivas Rao: psychedelics as antidepressants in pharmacology

After a short break, the conference introduced the audience to a different perspective from Dr. Srinivas Rao, Chief Scientific Officer at ATAI Life Sciences AG and former CEO of Kyalin Biosciences.

Rao’s companies mainly work on the development of rapid-acting antidepressant drugs based on psilocybin and ketamine. These chemicals may lead to more compelling effects in contrast to the numerous limitations of conventional antidepressants such as poor compliance, delayed efficacy, and negative side effects.

For example, patients who are treated with ketamine have demonstrated rapid relief of depression symptoms and fewer side effects than with other drugs. According to Rao, the US Food and Drug Administration recently approved an esketamine medicine targeted for treatment-resistant depression, sold under the name SPRAVATO.

The drug is a nasal spray that needs to be administered in a supervised setting. A patient who has had a treatment session with the psychedelic described their experience as giving them “the ability to step back,” which Rao further elaborated on as “the ability to give you the distance that you need from all the negative thinking.”

The success of SPRAVATO is a lucky case. As Rao emphasized, the development of such drugs can take almost a decade, yet still fail to succeed on the market despite FDA approval.

Currently, Rao’s companies are testing psilocybin in early clinical trials, and he remains hopeful for the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics in treating depression.

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