When Boston began to take COVID-19 pandemic precautions last year, the Boston Lyric Opera had just opened a production of Bellini’s Norma. Artistic director Esther Nelson turned to a longtime friend of the organization to help them determine whether the season could go on.
Massachusetts General Hospital has established a new Center for Neuroscience of Psychedelics to better understand how psychedelics may be used to improve the treatment of mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. The center is a collaboration between Mass General's Department of Psychiatry, the Department of Radiology’s Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging and the Center for Genomic Medicine’s Chemical Neurobiology Laboratory.
Psychedelic drugs are commonly associated with altered states of consciousness in which users say they have felt mystical, spiritual or transpersonal experiences. The center’s mission is to understand how psychedelics enhance the brain’s capacity for change, to optimize current treatments and create new treatments for mental illness and to render the term “treatment resistant” obsolete.
Sharmin Ghaznavi, MD, PhD
In the last couple decades, the possibility of using psychedelics for treatment of psychiatric illness has seen a renaissance, and the evidence so far is compelling enough to warrant investigation of their potential and their effects on the brain.
Associate Director, Center for Neuroscience of Psychedelics
Initial research studies focus on how psilocybin—a naturally occurring psychedelic medicine produced by species of fungi—affects brain circuits in patients with treatment resistant depression. “The intellectual capital and unique scientific resources that came together at Mass General to pursue this question of how psychedelics might change the brain for therapeutic benefit, has already captured the interest of one of the most scientifically sophisticated companies in this space to initiate a collaboration to pursue novel treatments,” says Jerrold F. Rosenbaum, MD, psychiatrist-in-chief emeritus, who will oversee the center as its director.
In addition to Rosenbaum, center leadership includes Sharmin Ghaznavi, MD, PhD, associate director who will also direct the center’s cognitive neuroscience initiatives, Bruce Rosen, MD, PhD, scientific director of neuroimaging, Stephen J. Haggarty, PhD, scientific director of chemical neurobiology, and Franklin King, MD, director of education and therapist training.
Ghaznavi says, “In the last couple decades, the possibility of using psychedelics for treatment of psychiatric illness has seen a renaissance, and the evidence so far is compelling enough to warrant investigation of their potential and their effects on the brain. We are focused on understanding how psychedelics impact the brain, from neurons to networks, to bring about the kind of change that provides meaningful and sustained relief for our patients suffering with mental illness.”
The role of psychedelics in psychiatry has not been without its challenges. “Since the 1960s, psychedelics have experienced a backlash, despite years of research at that time suggesting they held immense promise in the treatment of various psychiatric conditions,” says King. “While they are not cure-alls, and the unique aspects of guided therapy using psychedelics—relying, as it does, on extensive psychological preparation, non-directive therapy during the drug session itself and integration following the session—will be novel to the vast majority of both clinicians and patients, education of public and mental health care providers is urgently needed to prepare for the anticipated FDA approvals in the coming years.”
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