Massachusetts General Hospital wouldn’t seem like a natural fit for a center devoted to mind-altering drugs. The Harvard-affiliated medical behemoth is the very definition of establishment. But this week, MGH launched the Center for the Neuroscience of Psychedelics to study the potential of psilocybin and other psychoactive drugs to treat conditions such as depression, addiction, trauma, and more. Forget the beads and bellbottoms: The new center at MGH signifies that the field of psychedelic therapy has arrived.
“It wasn’t that we went looking for psychedelics,” Jerrold Rosenbaum, director of the center and former chief of psychiatry at MGH, said in an interview. Rather, inspiration came from the search for ways to ease the misery of patients whose mental illness is resistant to traditional treatments. Psychedelics are known to facilitate “plasticity” in the brain, increasing its capacity for change, and Rosenbaum said his team wanted to understand how these agents “move the brain to change in a way that can address many of the most anguishing forms of human suffering.”
The MGH center combines the disciplines of psychiatry, brain imaging, genomic medicine, and chemical biology. Some of the initial work involving patients will use psilocybin and be directed at rumination — the stuck, repetitive thought patterns that underlie several conditions, from addiction to obsessive-compulsive disorder. The future of the center’s research is boundless, since psychedelics’ role in neuroplasticity and neuritogenesis — the ability to build new synapses — may be useful in palliative care with terminally ill patients as well as in combatting neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Using psychedelics therapeutically isn’t new. Before President Richard Nixon classified psilocybin and LSD as Schedule 1 drugs (and thus illegal) in 1971, they were widely used in experimental treatments. The psychoactive drug MDMA (known by its street names, Ecstasy or Molly) was legal until 1985. But the drugs’ association with the 1960s counterculture and, later, the recreational raves of the 1980s, made researchers — and their funders — shy away.
It’s also difficult to escape a dark government history: In the 1950s, the CIA conducted experiments in mind control with thousands of unwitting subjects — including prisoners, sex workers, and the military — using massive doses of LSD. At a time when it is difficult to get a majority of Americans even to accept a life-saving vaccine, suspicion of psychedelic treatments remains high. The MGH Center itself is funded primarily through private philanthropy, not government grants.
Still, interest in psychedelics as a therapeutic tool has grown, even in the conservative medical culture of the United States. In 2000 the Food and Drug Administration approved the first small clinical trial to see if MDMA could be used safely to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. In 2017 the FDA awarded “breakthrough therapy designation” to MDMA, which moved the studies along. The results of Phase 3 trials, conducted with the nonprofit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, are expected later this year.
This renaissance in the study of human consciousness has galvanized not just MGH but medical centers at other venerable institutions such as Johns Hopkins, New York University, and UCLA, which is studying psychedelic therapies with the dying.
Not willing to wait for the slow gears of federal approval, some licensed psychiatrists have been privately prescribing psychedelics in controlled settings to help patients. These sessions occupy a hazy realm between legally sanctioned clinical trials and shamanistic ritual. The author Michael Pollan famously underwent guided sessions with psilocybin to research his 2018 bestseller “How To Change Your Mind.” Pollan, who sits on an advisory council for the MGH center, said the drugs cannot be divorced from the consciousness-expanding experience they provide. The focus is not just on the brain, but on the mind. “We are administering an experience,” he said during the center’s launch event. “That’s a freaky idea to many scientists.”
Meanwhile, scattered municipalities have begun passing ordinances to bring the drugs out of the shadows. Earlier this year, Cambridge, Somerville, and Northampton adopted orders to decriminalize psychedelics, aiming to get them out of the criminal justice system and into public health.
The national rethink on psychedelic drugs is moving rapidly, and some are wary of accepting their growing presence in medicine. But shouldn’t the drugs be available in a safe, clinical setting to desperate patients who have run out of other treatment options? Given a rising crisis in mental health and the limits of existing therapies, the best policy may be to adopt a bit of the brain’s plasticity and approach this “freaky idea” with an open mind.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.