On Thursday in Rackham Auditorium, about 200 attendees listened to experts on psychedelic neuroscience share their research and the vast potential for psychedelic therapies to treat patients with mental health disorders. The “Psychedelic Neuroscience and Therapy” symposium was hosted by the University of Michigan’s Center for Consciousness Science.
Psychedelic science and therapy go far beyond the familiar party drugs characteristic of the 1960s. Researchers and advocates aim to sway public opinion away from entrenched taboo stereotypes and toward decriminalization.
Originally characterized as hallucinogens, psychedelic drugs are known for inducing states of psychosis or altered perception. Many drugs like MDMA (commonly known as ecstasy) and LSD were discovered in the early 20th century. These drugs were used for research purposes in their infancy, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that their recreational use became popularized. This led to mass criminalization of psychedelic substances by the FDA and the development of their illicit social stigma.
The keynote speaker of the event was Rick Doblin, founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. Through MAPS, Doblin has dedicated himself to popularizing a more positive and scientific view of psychedelics.
Doblin introduced several ongoing projects investigating the healing potential of psychedelic drugs. One aimed to use MDMA as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. The brains of people suffering from PTSD are altered to respond dramatically to fear triggers and to think less logically.
“MDMA changes the brain too, but does it in the opposite way,” Doblin said. “It increases activity in the frontal cortex so that people can think logically about these things and not get triggered so easily.”
Doblin discussed studies which show promising healing potential for MDMA in other disorders.
“We’ve done some small pilot studies with other indications, including social anxiety in adults on the autism spectrum,” Doblin said. “We’ve done work with MDMA for anxiety associated with life-threatening illness.”
After dedicating his life to researching psychedelic drugs, Doblin spoke on the progress made since he was inspired to start MAPS.
“The FDA is now going to create guidance and documents if you want to do psychedelic research,” Doblin said. “This idea of trying to bring our different selves together — bring the psychedelics out into the open — it’s working and what we’re doing is making MDMA into a medicine.”
LSA junior Nick Lemaster expressed his own long-term interest in the topic, as he was originally inspired by a pilot study that used Psilocybin to minimize withdrawal effects of alcoholism.
“I just think it’s a fascinating new frontier of research in terms of psychological treatment,” Lemaster said. “It’s an avenue that hasn’t been explored much, and it’s also an experience that hasn’t been researched much.”
LSA senior Briana Johnson spoke on the potential to embrace this new type of therapy.
“Keeping your options open and not turning away from things that people say are inherently bad or add to the degradation of society, you shouldn’t turn your back on things that could potentially help people,” Johnson said. “As more and more people start to see that it’s beneficial, it might be more mainstreamed and have the potential to be more regulated.”
Rackham student Nick Denomme presented research on the history and discovery of LSD and its key role in understanding the function of serotonin in the brain and mental illnesses.
“The remarkable effects of LSD evolved our thinking about neurochemistry and the etiology of mental illness,” Denomme said. “These discoveries really helped us steer psychiatry away from psychogenic models and develop chemical models of mental illness.”
Katrin Preller, a researcher at Yale University, presented her work on the therapeutic potential of the psilocybin mushrooms, or magic mushrooms.
“Alterations in social cognitions are core symptoms of many psychiatric disorders,” Preller said.
Preller described the profound impact social rejection and exclusion has on psychiatric patients. She also explained the potential for Psilocybin to lessen this.
“Psychedelics reduce the processing of negative information — under Psilocybin they report reduced feelings of being socially excluded,” Preller said, referring to patients in a study with borderline personality disorder.
Rackham student Emma Trammel emphasized the importance of increasing public awareness in her presentation.
“So often we have these science conferences that just aren’t accessible to the general public, so it’s just scientists telling scientists about what they did, when what we really need to focus on is telling the general public about the work that we’re doing so that they trust that we know what we’re doing and they have reason to support us,” Trammel said.
LSA senior Christopher Fields, who attended the symposium, expressed his excitement at the prospect of exploring this new field.
“The therapeutic use of psychedelics halted and became a standstill in the late 60s,” Fields said. “The fact that U-M is hosting this event is a huge indicator of revamping psychedelic research.”