MGH delves into psychedelics research, marks milestone for psychedelics community

A pharmaceutical company just announced plans to work with Mass General Hospital on groundbreaking new research. This could be good news for communities fighting criminalization of psychedelics.

Mass General Hospital will soon start work with a German pharmaceutical company on potentially revolutionary plans to develop psychedelic drugs for patients with severe mental illnesses.

With a growing national movement towards the recreational decriminalization of these same substances, this move marks a major local and regional milestone -- the medical community is embracing what was once taboo and outright banned.  

“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,” MGH psychiatrist Jerrold Rosenbaum told the Boston Globe, this week, following this news. “As I started to learn more, I realized there was an opportunity here that we have let go undeveloped for decades.”

MGH creates new center for psychedelics research

Announced, Jan. 26, this partnership brings MGH and the company Atai Life Sciences together under the umbrella of MGH’s new Center for Neuroscience of Psychedelics. 

Rosenbaum will head that center alongside colleagues Stanley Cobb, Bruce Rosen, and Stephen Haggarty. 

Building on work already done in the field, this team plans to research the ways future doctors can use psychedelics to treat anything from depression, to anxiety, to schizophrenia. 

“This collaboration may lead to the discovery of novel mechanisms of neuroplasticity and development of more targeted treatments for mental illnesses, thereby pioneering the new frontier of precision mental health," Atai’s CSO & Co-Founder, Srinivas Rao, wrote in a press release

Historical criminalization of psychedelics slowly crumbles 

Psychedelics are a drug currently in legal limbo here in Massachusetts and across the US. 

Late last year, Oregon lumped so-called magic mushrooms alongside other substances in a broad vote to decriminalize hard drugs. 

Since then, municipalities throughout the country, including nearby Somerville, have taken similar  but somewhat symbolic action to decriminalize psychedelics within their borders. 

Stigmatized and criminalized during mid-20th century counterculture movements, many modern conversations surrounding psychedelics now center on their possible benefits. 

Advocates push for full decriminalization

Advocates hope to one day legalize these substances following a similar path to the one used by those opposed to prohibitions on legal marijuana. 

Indeed, that path will likely involve a proliferation of medicinal applications of psychedelics, akin growth of medical marijuana research and acceptance over the last decade. 

For that to happen, though, these advocates need doctors to actually cut through the decades of stigma that Rosenbaum acknowledges have stunted prior research.

Even in the Handbook on Psychiatric Drug Therapy, which Rosenbaum, himself, co-wrote in 2010, after all, the word “psychedelic” does not appear once across more than 300 pages.

MGH, partners see broad applications of potential new drugs

Pulling MGH towards a psychedelic future, Atai is exploring a specific phenomenon of “neuroplasticity.” 

Essentially, researchers know the brain has an ability to change over time. Now, some think they can use psychedelics to trigger and then speed up those changes in neurodivergent patients. 

"There is accumulating evidence that psychedelics have unique disease-modifying potential,” Rosenbaum noted in Atai’s press release.

Atai, itself, is headquartered in Berlin, Germany. Founded in 2018, it describes itself as a “drug development platform,” raising money and handling both clinical trials and the regulatory proceedings surrounding drug distribution in exchange for a majority stake in any products developed. 

Even as their new partnership marks a milestone for the psychedelics community, though, company representatives did tell CNBC in November of last year that they’re not interested in natural psychedelics like mushrooms. Instead, they’re looking strictly at synthetic compounds. 

“We put a lot of camouflage on our soul, on our character, on our inner self,” Atai co-founder Christian Angermayer told CNBC, speaking generally on his company’s goals. “Psychedelics take away all these things which were imposed on us. That is an extremely important thing because I am very convinced you need to know yourself.”

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