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Massachusetts General Hospital Launches Center to Study Neuroscience of Psychedelics

Massachusetts General Hospital's new Center comes amid a push throughout Massachusetts for the decriminalization of psychedelic drugs.
Massachusetts General Hospital's new Center comes amid a push throughout Massachusetts for the decriminalization of psychedelic drugs. By Jenny M. Lu
By Ariel H. Kim and Brandon L. Kingdollar, Crimson Staff Writers

Massachusetts General Hospital, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School, launched a new center to study the clinical benefits of psychedelics in treating mental illness.

The Center for the Neuroscience of Psychedelics comes amid a statewide push for psychedelic decriminalization, including acts passed in Cambridge and Somerville that specifically cite the possible medical benefits of substances like psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms.”

One of the Center’s first studies, to begin this spring, will examine psilocybin’s efficacy in mitigating rumination, a common feature of depression. The researchers also plan to explore the substance’s impact on cognitive and emotional processing, as well as on personality traits that make an individual susceptible to mental illness.

Center Director Jerrold F. “Jerry” Rosenbaum — MGH psychiatrist-in-chief emeritus and a HMS professor of psychiatry — said he was motivated to launch the Center after he attended a talk where he realized the potential psilocybin has to help patients for whom all other treatments are ineffective.

“There were changes in a key brain network called the default mode network, which almost seemed to defragment — like, lost its connectivity — and that's an interesting phenomenon because the default mode network is one we think is responsible for our ability to self reflect, to be aware of ourselves,” Rosenbaum said. “The default mode network is a network that is hyperactive in people who ruminate, and I said ‘Aha!’ — there's maybe something here for this.”

Before retiring as the chief of psychiatry, Rosenbaum focused much of his clinical and research career on treatment-resistant patients. He found many of these patients were experiencing rumination — obsessive and repetitive thoughts of one’s own distress — a process that underlies various mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety.

After attending the talk, Rosenbaum and his colleague Sharmin Ghaznavi began devising an experiment to better understand the potential impact of psilocybin on rumination.

“There haven't been a lot of game-changing drugs,” Ghaznavi, the Center’s associate director, said. “And these have the potential to be a game changer because they seem to have some fairly profound effects on people with a treatment resistant illness.”

When Rosenbaum and Ghaznavi reached out to the manufacturers of psilocybin to obtain some samples for their study, they not only offered their samples as a donation, but suggested the possibility of “something bigger” with psychedelic research at MGH.

Rosenbaum then gathered a team of researchers at MGH — including experts in neuroimaging, chemical neurobiology, and translational research — to form the Center, which he planned would delve deeper into the neuroscience of psychedelics.

In addition to psilocybin therapy, which has recently been granted breakthrough status by the FDA, the Center also plans to study other psychedelics — specifically MDMA and its potential to treat PTSD in veterans, according to Ghaznavi.

Jacob M. Hooker, the center’s director of translational biomarkers and a professor of radiology at HMS, said while it’s important to explore therapeutic possibilities, the Center is not prepared to advocate for a change in the legal standing of psilocybin and other substances.

“We're by no means at all advocating for any particular legal status or use model,” Hooker said. “What we want to do is, is really, really focus on how they can be used to manipulate the brain in positive ways therapeutically.”

“Unlike a lot of the world, we're not so much advocates or fighters for access; we're trying to understand how they work,” Rosenbaum noted. “That's why it's called the Center for the Neuroscience of Psychedelics, as opposed to the Center for the Use of Psychedelics or Decriminalization.”

Frank L. Gerratana, an activist with Decriminalize Nature Massachusetts, said the research alone is “great news” for the broader decriminalization movement, crediting medical research with pushing public opinion “in the right direction.”

“The more clear medical research on these types of things, especially research that ends with good results, the more likely it is we're going to see broader decriminalization,” Gerratana said. “What we're hoping is that as things progress in the state level, we'll be able to reach out to some of the researchers and see if they will be willing to provide information or even written or in-person testimony.”

This represents the first research on psychedelics at a Harvard affiliate in over six decades — since the controversial Harvard Psilocybin Project conducted by Timothy F. Leary and Richard Alpert, two members of the Psychology Department, between 1960 and 1962. The following year, Alpert was dismissed from the University for giving drugs to undergraduates, while Leary’s contract expired after he failed to meet his teaching responsibilities.

“There were some folks who were in the research world, I mean like here at Harvard, that I think got a little far out with [psychedelics],” Rosenbaum said. “Like the Timothy Leary story, which you know about, which ultimately was an embarrassment to all the people who were trying to be serious about these things and understand their potential.”

Michael K. Pollan, the author of "How to Change Your Mind" and a professor of the practice of non-fiction at Harvard, said the fact that this research is taking place despite the University’s history with psychedelics is a testament to its promise.

“It took some courage on Jerry’s part and some good salesmanship, obviously, to get approval, but it's a measure, I think, of how promising the research is,” said Pollan, who is one of the Center’s advisors. “Whatever the history is, there's something valuable in these substances that needs to be explored.”

“The lesson has been learned that we have to be much more judicious than we were,” Pollan added. “I think the culture is prepared to make a more realistic judgment of the risks and benefits of psychedelics.”

—Staff writer Ariel H. Kim can be reached at ariel.kim@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Brandon L. Kingdollar can be reached at brandon.kingdollar@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter at @newskingdollar.

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