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Mass General to conduct research on how psychedelics affect the brain

The hospital is collaborating with a German company and has launched a center to study hallucinogens.

Massachusetts General Hospital is working with German company atai Life Sciences to study how psychedelics affect the brain.
Massachusetts General Hospital is working with German company atai Life Sciences to study how psychedelics affect the brain.Josh Reynolds/The Washington Post

Massachusetts General Hospital is working with a German company to research the effects of psychedelics on the brain.

Atai Life Sciences ― which on Tuesday jointly announced the collaboration with Mass General ― acts like an incubator for psychedelic therapy-focused companies, acquiring majority stakes in small biotechs and launching its own startups. It’s looking for new ways to treat mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety.

“We have a fairly large pipeline,” said Srinivas Rao, atai’s chief scientific officer. “We have many things going into the clinic this year moving at pretty much breakneck speed.”

The collaboration with Mass General came about after the Boston teaching hospital recently established a group to study psychedelic therapy, called the Center for Neuroscience of Psychedelics. Jerrold Rosenbaum, a psychiatrist at Mass General who specializes in treating psychiatric disorders and heads the program, said there is a need to better understand the effects of those substances on the brain.

Rosenbaum became interested in the field of psychedelic therapy when a friend — who now serves as the director of the center’s advisory council — began inquiring about them, prompting Rosenbaum to reassess his misconceptions about hallucinogens.

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“I knew about psychedelics in the way that most physicians did, which was sort of the perception of them as recreational drugs, or drugs that were banned from research for decades,” he said. “As I started to learn more, I realized there was an opportunity here that we have let go undeveloped for decades.”

The research center is focused on a phenomenon called “neuroplasticity,” or the ability of brain cells to change. Recent studies have shown psychedelics could boost this kind of activity, which, for example, could alter how depression affects the brain.

Rao said psychedelic therapy aims to enhance the effects of those substances by taking advantage of that neuroplastic state.

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“There seems to be a period of time where it is easier to establish new habits, and you want to exploit that in the week, maybe two weeks, immediately after the psychedelic event,” he said.

Mass General and atai are not disclosing the financial terms of the collaboration or the specific substance that will be tested on animals and in the lab as part of the partnership. But the Mass General researcher coleading the effort, Stephen Haggarty, said it involves the “next generation” of psychedelics, and is different than psilocybin, the active chemical in “magic mushrooms” or LSD, commonly referred to as “acid.”

“It is branching into other targets that may be important for neuroplasticity . . . where much more is needed to be learned before it could safely go into humans,” he said. “Based on reports of this molecule in humans, it looks like it has promise.”

In November, atai announced the closing of a $125 million financing round, led in part by early Facebook backer Peter Thiel, bringing its total funding to about $250 million. The company was founded in 2018 as a way to raise money for London-based Compass Pathways, a publicly traded biotech that uses psilocybin therapy to treat depression.

Compass was cofounded by George Goldsmith and Ekaterina Malievskaia, who were motivated by the experience of family members suffering from depression. Rosenbaum said the couple was a major backer of the Center for Neuroscience of Psychedelics.


Anissa Gardizy can be reached at anissa.gardizy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @anissagardizy8.