Sept. 27 (UPI) -- Johns Hopkins University researchers plan to use psychedelic drugs to attack some of society's toughest problems at a new research center, including smoking, depression, alcoholism, Alzheimer's disease, anorexia, Lyme disease and even addiction to opioids.
Private donations of $17 million have been pledged for the new Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research, which opened this month in Baltimore.
For almost 20 years, a small group of scientists have been studying mind-altering drugs and their potential to unlock the human mind after research screeched to a halt in the 1970s during the Nixon administration.
"It's incredibly exciting as the largest single donation or investment into psychedelic research," said Brad Burge, director of strategic communications for the San Francisco-based non-profit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.
"This donation shows that there will be enough regulation and public support that will create jobs in research and therapy. This research has moved out of the fringe."
Along with a U.S. movement to decriminalize "magic mushrooms," which contain the psychedelic drug psilocybin, dedicated groups of researchers have been studying the therapeutic mental health benefits of psychedelics such as LSD, MDMA (also known as the street drug Ecstasy or Molly) and ketamine.
Source of funding
Private funding for the new center comes from the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation and a handful of philanthropists: business author Tim Ferriss; Matt Mullenweg, co-founder of WordPress; TOMS Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie and investor Craig Nerenberg.
Over the past two decades, more than 350 subjects in 700 sessions have tried psychedelics at Johns Hopkins in carefully monitored settings, said Roland Griffiths, director of the new center.
But many of the studies have been on very small numbers of patients. For example, a 2016 study showed low doses of psilocybin reduced depression and anxiety in terminal cancer patients, but only involved 51 participants.
Magic mushrooms helped 85 percent of longtime smokers who participated in a Johns Hopkins therapeutic program, but only 15 subjects participated. The new funding will help expand this research to larger groups and also drive research into discovering how the drugs work.
Griffiths said in studies with psilocybin, researchers have found the drug can change character traits and make patients experience more altruism and openness.
"Under appropriate screening and setting conditions, we can occasion experiences that are felt to be personally significant and often the most meaningful of people's entire lifetimes," Griffiths told UPI. "For patients with depression and addiction issues, researchers have seen "remarkable and enduring changes," he said.
A patient in psilocybin research is given about eight hours of pre-dose counseling. During the treatment, the patient lies on a couch with an eye mask and headphones that play music. Two researchers stay with the patient during the entire six-hour trip.
No suggestions are given to patients during the experience. They are asked to look inward "use the time to investigate their own inner experience, the nature of their own mind and to be curious," Griffiths said.
Patients often report a "sense that everything is interconnected, that all is one, that there are no differences among us at some level," Griffiths said. "They say it is a profound core understanding, and that feeling is sacred and deserves reverence."
New York City-based actor Tony D. Head was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which metastasized to his lymph nodes. He participated in a psilocybin study at Johns Hopkins in 2012.
"The anxieties would manifest through panic attacks, nervousness, a feeling of fatalism that you're not going to live that long," he said in a video filmed three years later.
"In the most intense part of the journey ... it was about a higher power, being in a place that was an infinite space," he said. "The most glorious part of this trip was only a connection to this power that was out there, and it touched me."
A hallucinogenic experience with magic mushrooms has been described by users as an intense emotional state accompanied by seeing patterns or different colors and distorted objects.
Of course, a "bad trip" also can be frightening, Griffiths said. In 2015, researchers at Johns Hopkins surveyed almost 2,000 people for the most negative experiences while taking hallucinogenic drugs. Some described it as the "worst time of their lives." Three attempted suicide, the study showed.
Understanding potential problems and dangers in any kind of treatment was important, Griffiths said. The study helped other researchers develop screening techniques, especially for patients diagnosed with schizophrenia, who may have a tougher time with the treatment.
"Those risks are not inconsequential, and we have to be very cautious," he said.