The world's largest research centre has been launched to examine whether psychedelic drugs can treat depression, opioid addiction and Lyme disease after tech entrepreneurs helped fuel new interest in the field.
Johns Hopkins University's School of Medicine announced the launch of the new Centre for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research last week, made possible by a US$17 million ($26.5m) donation from a group of private donors including the founder of WordPress and a popular podcast host.
It comes amid a surge in interest in psychedelic compounds to treat a range of mental health disorders. The field has been largely neglected since Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary began to investigate how cognitive processes and emotions are affected by mind-altering substances in the 1960s.
LSD and other psychedelics have long been illegal in countries around the world, but studies suggesting they may be effective in medical treatments have helped shift perceptions. This year Denver was the first city in the US to decriminalise magic mushrooms after research suggested some compounds aid treating depression and anxiety in cancer patients.
Psilocybin is a Tier 1 illegal drug in the US, the equivalent to a Class A substance in Britain and New Zealand, and not yet been approved as a medical treatment. However, researchers hope the new centre may contribute to a sea change.
The new funding is the largest single donation to the field and will fund a five-year research programme to examine whether psilocybin, the psychedelic compound found in magic mushrooms, can treat alcoholism, post-traumatic stress disorder and several other complex conditions.
Many of the tests being conducted by the centre are the first of their kind and will involve between 200 and 250 volunteers over a number of trials. In most cases patients will be given one or two doses of the drug while under constant observation.
Dr Frederick Barrett, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins, said psilocybin offered a "radically different model" of treatment as psychedelic drugs "don't follow the cycle of abuse". "People don't typically experience craving or withdrawal after the use of psychedelic drugs," he told the Daily Telegraph.
Barrett said researchers were still unsure why psychedelic drugs work, but theories suggest their effect on the brain is to "increase cognitive flexibility", or alter its "balance of positive and negative emotional information". However,he cautioned against decriminalisation.
One of the centre donors is entrepreneur and podcast host Tim Ferriss. The other private donors are the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation, which provided most funding, as well as Matt Mullenweg, the co-founder of WordPress, TOMS shoe brand founder Blake Mycoskie and investor Craig Nerenberg.