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MANEL TORRALBA VIA FLICKR/CC BY 2.0
John Hopkins researchers are sending patients on psychedelic trips
MAGIC MONEY

A multi-million dollar donation just created a bonanza of psychedelic research

Olivia Goldhill
By Olivia Goldhill

Science reporter

Psychedelics research, already enjoying a renaissance of blossoming scientific interest, just got even bigger. In the largest ever one-time donation to the field, Johns Hopkins Medicine announced today (Sep. 4) that it has received $17m from a group of private donors. 

The funding will support the creation of a new Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, and the execution of a five-year roster of psychedelic research. Within the center, scientists will launch studies of psilocybin (the key psychedelic ingredient in magic mushrooms) as a treatment for a panoply of disorders and conditions: anorexia, opioid addiction, Alzheimer’s, chronic Lyme disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, and alcohol addiction. Johns

Hopkins scientists will also study the effects of micro-dosing on healthy people, and will conduct a study on how psilocybin affects creativity. 

Many of these tests of psilocybin are novel: The studies on anorexia, Alzheimer’s, opiate addiction, and Lyme disease will all be the first of their kind. And though there’s currently an advanced trial on using the psychedelic MDMA to treat PTSD, the Johns Hopkins trial will be the first to systematically evaluate psilocybin.  

In a conference call today, researchers said psilocybin had the potential to treat multiple disorders. The psychedelic drug “doesn’t fit into the classic model” whereby one drug treats one specific condition, said Roland Griffiths, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins Medicine. “These [psychedelic] experiences can produce enduring positive changes and re-write personal narratives around being stuck with whatever the issue is, be it addiction or depressive symptoms.”  

Johns Hopkins is already one of the leading institutions researching the medical benefits of psilocybin; they were the first research group to get regulatory approval for psychedelic research on healthy volunteers back in 2000. The drug is currently listed as a Tier 1 illegal drug in the United States, and is not currently approved for treatment of any medical condition.

Though there are growing numbers of studies into the substance, the bulk of these are small, which will need to be repeated before the drug could be considered for legal medical approval. The Johns Hopkins research will continue in this vein of creating small studies, but for a wider range of conditions. 

The research is driven in part by lack of viable alternatives for some of these conditions. “Anorexia is one of the toughest psychiatric illnesses to treat and has the highest mortality of any psychiatric illness,” said Natalie Gukasyan, postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins and lead study coordinator of the anorexia trial. Anorexia patients often struggle to feel motivated to overcome their illness, explained Gukasyan, and researchers theorize that psilocybin can create a fresh perspective that could prompt patients to change their behavior around eating.  

Of course, researchers emphasized, there are serious risks to psychedelics. “None of our research should encourage ‘do it yourself at home,’” said Matthew Johnson, a psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor at Johns Hopkins Medicine. Patients who take the drugs in clinical settings do so under the supervision of two therapists and are carefully monitored for risks, such as the psychological impact of a bad trip. 

The bulk of the center’s funding came from the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation, a philanthropic foundation focused on the economically disadvantaged and health funding. Four individual philanthropists entrepreneur and podcast host Tim Ferriss, WordPress co-founder Matt Mullenweg, TOMS shoe brand founder Blake Mycoskie, and investor Craig Nerenberg—are also contributing. 

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