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Wash U researchers are exploring psychedelic drugs — for science

A man lies on a couch with a blanket, an eye mask, and headphones in.
Josh Siegel
Participants in the study are given a dose of psilocybin, then relax with eye masks and headphones and get CT scans done. Research facilitators are nearby but stay largely uninvolved unless the participant needs them.

Decades after psychedelic drugs like LSD went from a major research area to the butt of jokes and war on drugs fearmongering, they are seeing new attention. That's the case at Washington University School of Medicine, where physicians at the Healthy Mind Lab see themselves as part of “renaissance of psychedelics research.”

At the Healthy Mind Lab, Dr. Ginger Nicol and Dr. Josh Siegel are studying the effects of psilocybin — the naturally occurring compound found in some mushrooms — on the brain. Though psychedelics like these are currently classified as Schedule 1 drugs, studies across the U.S. have found that they can help people living with depression, PTSD and a host of other mental illnesses.

“There's obviously lots of writing about psychedelics,” Siegel said on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air. “But seeing these pretty amazing experiences and personality changes really was kind of a turning point for me.”

Dr. Josh Siegel and Dr. Ginger Nicol are leading the research into psilocybin at WashU.
Kayla Drake
St. Louis Public Radio
Dr. Josh Siegel and Dr. Ginger Nicol are leading the research into psilocybin at Wash U.

Nicol and Siegel say they choose their participants carefully and then have them set goals for the experience. They give them a dose of psilocybin, take MRIs and interview them afterward, studying both their brain scans and the feelings they report.

One of their research participants felt — and still feels, weeks later — a noticeable positive impact from his psychedelic experience at their lab. Scott is a Wash U sophomore and asked that only his first name be used due to the stigma around Schedule 1 drugs. After his experience, he noticed little things didn’t bother him anymore.

“I felt much more calm and at peace with my daily life. The small conflicts that arise, I understand and accept more,” Scott said. “I'm definitely less bothered by little inconveniences that I didn't really know even stressed me out before, until I realized that I wasn't being stressed by them.”

Nicol and Siegel’s research participants are all people who have had experiences with psychedelics before. They have MRIs taken before, during and after their drug exposure, and are monitored throughout their experience. Their goal is to find out why and how psilocybin can have a positive psychological impact.

“Psilocybin and potentially other psychedelics have these really transformational effects. We have some ideas about how that happens,” Nicol said. “But that's really, I think, where the combination of clinical trials experience and expertise in neuroscience can really be powerful.”

She added that having people take the drug in a controlled environment with the right mindset can change the experience and decrease the likelihood of a “bad trip.”

“It is really true that using it recreationally and using it therapeutically, those are different experiences. And people can have profound experiences when they are using it recreationally,” Nicol said. “But it really depends on how you enter the experience, what your mindset is, what you're thinking about, where you are.”

Listen: Dr. Ginger Nicol and Dr. Josh Siegel on their psilocybin research

Nicol acknowledged that there certainly are accounts of people acting out while on psychedelics.

“All the crazy stories you hear of people like taking their clothes off in public and throwing away all their money at a concert — those things definitely happen,” she said.

Siegel added that most of the time, negative experiences occur when psilocybin is taken in an uncontrolled environment.

“Our protocol, the way it's set up, is for safety, but also to maximize the likelihood of a positive experience,” he said. “But even still, some percentage — a minority — but some percentage have a very scary experience, or, you know, anxiety or paranoia as a result of the drug.”

Nicol added that with increasing burnout across professions, psilocybin can be helpful, since it helps with problem-solving and mastery. And burnout, she said, occurs when problems seem to become unsolvable.

“This is really changing people's brains, and in a positive way.” she said. “And mastery is a really important part of recovery and mental health.” She added, “We have a really huge societal need for medicines like this that can help people.”

Studying a Schedule 1 drug like psilocybin can lead to complications for researchers. However, in what Nicol and Siegel deemed a “psychedelic renaissance,” some nonprofit organizations are footing the bill for psychedelic research with the eventual hope that the FDA will approve the drug.

“There's this whole body of research from 60 or 70 years ago that has almost been buried,” Siegel said. “There were studies, all kinds of research, and it just got shut down, basically. And nobody said anything about it, or gave it much attention.”

Now a growing number of people support increased access to psychedelics, with the state of Oregon even legalizing (and regulating) psilocybin. In Missouri, Rep. Michael Davis, R-Kansas City, has introduced for the second year a “Right to Try” bill. House Bill 2429 would allow certain patients to get access to currently unauthorized treatment options, including psychedelics.

Nicol said the bill has flaws, even if it’s generally on the right track.

“I think the important thing is that it decriminalizes, both for patients and for doctors. But I think there are some missing pieces,” she said. “And there's more information that we need to be able to help guide people who want to do this, like physicians who maybe don't have a background in this, and how can we help them do it better. There's still some things we need to understand.”

Because of the power they hold, Nicol stressed that she sees psychedelics’ greatest potential in “medication-assisted psychotherapy,” not people dosing themselves.

“It's really you learning about yourself,” she said. “So it's not just a simple ‘Let's pop a pill and get better.’ It's really, ‘What kind of work can we help you do? And how can we help it be as effective as possible?’”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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