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Massachusetts General Hospital Launches New Center for Psychedelics

By Alexander Beadle

Published: Jul 09, 2021   
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After decades of prohibition and intense stigmatization, psychedelic drugs are starting to be seen in an entirely new light. The transcendent states of altered consciousness associated with psychedelic drug use have now been shown to hold promise in tackling the symptoms of a number of profoundly debilitating mental illnesses, including treatment-resistant depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), in multiple clinical trials.

But it is still largely unknown how these psychedelic drugs are able to affect the brains of patients and why they can succeed at treating the symptoms of these mental health problems where other drugs have failed.

To investigate the neuroscientific processes that underpin these effects, Massachusetts General Hospital has established a new Center for the Neuroscience of Psychedelics.

Inside the Center for the Neuroscience of Psychedelics

The Center for the Neuroscience of Psychedelics (CNP) states that its main goals are to understand how psychedelic drugs enhance the brain’s capability for change, to optimize current psychedelic treatments and create new treatment options, and to ultimately “make the term ‘treatment resistant’ obsolete.”

As an organization, the center exists as a collaboration between leading researchers from the fields of psychiatry, chemical neurobiology, and neuroimaging. This collaboration includes the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, the Department of Radiology’s Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging and the Center for Genomic Medicine’s Chemical Neurobiology Laboratory. The CNP’s wider ecosystem of expertise also includes the other departments at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Harvard University and the Broad Institute, plus several external biotechnology and biopharmaceutical companies.

For the researchers at the CNP, the formal establishment of the center is an important step forward. While informal collaborations between these different departments was already possible, having the CNP to coordinate research efforts will be a new evolution in the pursuit of answers.

“Coming together as a center, albeit one that is modular, reinforces the sense of priority and mission – a commitment to a particular scientific challenge that implies effort and focus, and not just convenience,” Jerrold F. Rosenbaum, director of the Center for the Neuroscience of Psychedelics, told Analytical Cannabis.

Though collaborating under the CNP, researchers will be able to leverage some of the world’s most advanced neuroimaging tools – many of them developed or pioneered by scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital.

“The [Athinoula A.] Martinos Center team, led by Bruce Rosen, not only does state-of-the-art neuroimaging but also creates the next generation of tools – like the Connectome, PET-MRI, and hyper-scanning [techniques] that can be brought to bear on the questions at hand and the capability of imaging from the network level to the level of the individual neuron,” Rosenbaum added. “This team developed fMRI, for example.”

Research planned to investigate rumination and loneliness

The founding of the new Center for the Neuroscience of Psychedelics largely came about through the idea of investigating rumination, the intrusive and recurring negative or self-defeating thoughts that are common in multiple mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

As Rosebaum explained to the Harvard Gazette, over the course of his career he saw that rumination was a significant source of struggle for his patients, but he realized that it was not being given much attention from the field of psychiatry as a whole. A short while after this realization, Rosenbaum went to a conference on psychedelics and attended a presentation on psilocybin’s effect on the brain from Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, head of the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London. Carhart-Harris and colleagues had found that psilocybin could cause changes in the “default mode network” of the brain – the same area that is also involved in rumination. From there, Rosenbaum says he was “hooked,” and he began reaching out to experts in psychedelics, including Katya Malievskaia, a co-founder of Compass Pathways.

“Our focus on rumination struck her as innovative and appealing, so she agreed to make psilocybin available from the company and later offered some support through a foundation,” Rosenbaum told the Harvard Gazette.

Eventually, this research would grow to become the basis of the approvals from Massachusetts General Hospital to found the new Center for the Neuroscience of Psychedelics.

The CNP’s initial foundational research work will include research into the effects of psilocybin on rumination in patients with treatment-resistant depression. The second initial focus will be on the effects of MDMA-assisted mindful self-compassion on loneliness in patients with treatment-resistant PTSD and will be carried out in partnership with Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS).

“The psilocybin study is approved and likely will be enrolling later this year,” Rosenbaum told Analytical Cannabis. “The MDMA study requires more funding support, so is still a way off.”

The center also lists a number of other research works that it intends to complete in the future. This includes additional research into psilocybin’s effects in people with treatment-resistant depression, this time looking at cognitive and emotional processing, specifically salience processing and cognitive reappraisal. The center will also look to the investigate psilocybin use for personality trait factors that predispose to mental illness.

While some psychedelic drugs have been given breakthrough therapy designations from the US Food and Drug Administration, the general classification of almost all psychedelics as Schedule 1 controlled substances by the Drug Enforcement Administration has made it difficult for many researchers working in psychedelics to secure funding for their proposed research projects. As a result, much of the funding for the new center will come from philanthropic giving. But as the commercial interest in psychedelic medicines continues to grow, it is clear that there is a need for well-funded scientific research centers that can provide the kinds of research and data needed by lawmakers and healthcare professionals to break down these barriers for effective psychedelic medicine treatments.


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