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Revived interest in psychedelic therapies

Medicine@Yale, 2022 - May June
by Isabella Backman

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Promise for mental illness treatment attracts financial support to Yale program

Mental health disorders such as depression and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) are among the leading causes of disability worldwide. Despite approved treatments for both, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and medication, many patients still suffer from sometimes debilitating symptoms.

As interest resurges in the therapeutic potentials of psychedelic drugs such as psilocybin, made from the active ingredient in so-called magic mushrooms, the Yale Program for Psychedelic Science has been at the forefront of studying these promising new therapies for treating mental illness. And now, with the support of generous donations, scientists are looking forward to boosting ongoing research, broadening the span of work being done, and growing the program into a self-sustaining center.

Psychedelic science research at Yale dates back to the 1950s, but came to a halt in 1972 when federal legislation made the drugs being studied illegal. In recent years, however, organizations such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and National Institutes of Health (NIH) have softened their regulatory stances as scientists gain a newfound appreciation for the remarkable prop- erties of psychedelics.

“For the first time in the past 20 years, we finally have some promising new treatments for mental illnesses that seem to work rapidly with minimal side effects, and in a fundamentally different way from our current standard of care in pharmacology and psychiatry,” says Benjamin Kelmendi, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry and co-founder of the program.

Kelmendi’s research on the therapeutic benefits of psilocybin on OCD is one of the program’s first ongoing studies. His work was inspired by a small 2006 study by a group in Arizona where nine patients experienced improvement in OCD symptoms after being treated with the drug. Intrigued by this finding, he launched the first randomized blind placebo-controlled study of psilocybin treatment for OCD. The early results, he says, have been “very promising.” However, when he started the study, he also knew that receiving any federal funding would be challenging.

“At the time, I recognized that funding from the NIH, or any type of federal funding, would be very limited,” he says. “I knew that I was going to have to rely exclusively on philanthropic gifts to keep my work going and establish a research center.”

His groundbreaking work has caught the attention of multiple funders. Kelmendi received his first donations from the Heffter Foundation and Carey Turnbull in 2018. The Steven and Alexandra Cohen Foundation made a donation early in 2021, soon followed by the National Institute of Mental Health’s first grant—$190,000 a year for four years—to support medicinal psychedelic research. The funding will allow Yale researchers to further explore how to optimize psilocybin treatments and help patients with OCD who may benefit from this therapy to obtain it.

Beyond his OCD research, on- going studies include exploring the therapeutic benefits of psilocybin on depression and the effects of MDMA on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Kelmendi and his colleagues are hopeful that the studies con- ducted through their program will help lead to new treatments that are highly effective and fast-acting, and don’t require daily medication.

“Our enthusiasm comes from the fact that clinical studies suggest that one or two doses of psilocybin can lead to remission in both OCD and depression,” Kelmendi says. “That is unprecedented in psychiatry.”

Yale’s program, says Kelmendi, encourages an interdisciplinary approach to studying psychedelics through creating collaborative relationships across campus. By bringing psychiatrists, neurologists, and neuroscientists together with philosophers, anthropologists, psychologists, and linguists, he and his colleagues hope to better understand not only the neurobiological effects of psychedelics, but also the language and terminology that surround psychedelic science.

“What makes our program unique is that our mission is truly multidisciplinary,” he says. “Unlike other centers, our scope is substantially broader because we aim to support and pursue both applied and theoretical studies—therapeutic trials as well as phenomenological and neurobiological investigations—and to integrate our growing scientific and clinical understanding of psychedelic agents with anthropological and sociological perspectives.”

One of Kelmendi’s long-term goals for the program is for it to grow into a self-sustaining center, but achieving this goal will require raising more funding. Now, with another recent donation from Kevin Ryan, YC ’85, he hopes to move into a centralized space on campus dedicated to the study of psychedelic science this summer.

“Yale has a long history of breakthrough research in psychedelic science,” says Ryan, an internet entrepreneur and investor who has started numerous companies including Business Insider. “I’m happy to see that Yale is pursuing an area that even five or 10 years ago seemed controversial.”

Christopher Pittenger, MD, PhD, Elizabeth Mears and House Jameson Professor of Psychiatry, looks forward to seeing the program develop. As co-founder along with Kelmendi, he hopes to encourage junior scientists with new ideas to bring them forward.

“We want to see our program grow to be as broad as possible,” he says. “We want it to support other work that wouldn’t otherwise happen in the psychological realm.”