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Matthew Jonhson: psychedelics are brain plasticity-inducing

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Matthew Johnson is associate director of the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins University – a center created last year. Johnson is one of the world’s leading researchers in psychedelic science. The Open Foundation asked him to reflect on some hot topics in psychedelic science today – like the mystical experience, business players entering psychedelic research and new avenues of clinical research.
In September of 2019, Johns Hopkins launched its Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research. Just a few months earlier, Imperial College in London had started its own Centre for Psychedelic Research. The creation of the Hopkins center seemed like a ‘response’, in a way. Is there some rivalry we need to know about?
The seeds were being sown long before we were aware of the Imperial center, so I wouldn’t say so. There’s far more room for synergy and collaboration than for rivalry in this field. Of course, you always like to be the first to publish a paper on a given subject, that’s just human. But in the big picture, it’s really great that there are two large, very credible centers in the world, and the hope is that it’s going to keep growing. There’s even a third center in South Carolina now, with Michael Mithoefer and others.
What’s the added value of dedicated centers for psychedelic research?
The center is a term used in academics to mean a certain level of funding that allows for an increased concentration and focus on a research area. Functionally, the important thing is that it’s dramatically increasing the throughput of our work on psychedelics.
Your group at Hopkins seems to place a good deal of emphasis on the mystical experience and considers it the mechanism of action for therapeutic outcomes of psychedelic therapy, whereas Imperial focuses more on imagery and neuroscience. Where does this focus on the mystical experience come from?
I think there’s a focus on the biology and the neuroscience at both sites. I’m conducting a study with 80 people on smoking cessation where subjects are undergoing fMRI with a variety of tasks before and after the experience. Fred Barrett in our group is a neuroscientist, and he’s conducting a number of studies right now. In terms of the psychology, the Imperial group has used more of a Freudian model and we have focused more on the mystical experience, but I think empirically we’re likely talking about the same thing. The term ‘ego loss’ has a high correlation to the mystical experience of unity. The focus on mystical experience dates back to William James, and I see it as continuing a thread of interest in this kind of experience that human beings, around the world and throughout time, have consistently reported. It seems that psychedelics prompt those types of experiences, so that interest is far larger than the therapeutic use of psychedelics, which in itself is very important. It taps into the idea that these can be tools for understanding the biology and the very nature of these extraordinary human experiences, and their ability – however occasioned – to prompt behavior change.
The Hopkins Center is set to research interesting new indications: anorexia, distress associated with Alzheimer’s, and aftercare for Lyme disease.
We have started the first two. We’re actively recruiting for the anorexia treatment study, and we’ve actually run participants through that study, but not enough to discern any results yet. We’re also actively recruiting for the mood within Alzheimer’s disease study. We have the funding for the other study, on post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome, as it’s come to be known, and we’re preparing the regulation to be able to conduct it. We should be starting it within a few months.
What exactly is the aim regarding Alzheimer’s?
The primary aim is clearly the mood of patients, through the lens of cancer research, where the focus is not on treating the disease, but the psychological suffering that so often comes with it, and the existential distress that is also there with dementia. But we’re also going to look at the cognitive outcomes, because there are some interesting animal studies that suggest that there are potential positive cognitive effects of these compounds. Also because having a profound psychological reorientation, where you have reductions in depression, might in itself lead to improved cognition and slow the disease process. We’re not holding our breath that we’ll see something there, but it’s worth a look.
Both the center in Baltimore and the one in London are funded by private donors: do you understand the concerns of people who are wary of the increasing interference of big business with psychedelic research?
There are many opinions out there, so I’m not sure what the concerns exactly are. The Center is funded through a non-profit model and it’s 100 % philanthropy, so I think it’s unrelated to any concerns about business involvement in this area.
Well, people like Tim Ferriss raise some questions. He’s an investor, and investors are known to seek some kind of return on their investments. Some people are quite suspicious of that.
At the surface level I can understand the concerns, if people don’t know the details. From knowing the details, I can say that if his goal was to have a financial return on investment, he’s done a very poor job at setting things up. However, he’s been very clear that the goal was to leverage the growth of an area and the advancement of science.
Humans are interested in leaving a legacy, and being known for having had an impact, so that may be relevant to anybody who makes an investment in an area with a hope for its growth. I think he wants to see this area take off, and a lot of people look to him as someone who sees what’s coming in the future. I also think this has already been an advantage in terms of people paying attention to this area.
Are you concerned that, once legal, psychedelic therapy might turn into big business? The business press is already touting psychedelic therapy as the next big cash cow.
If we’re on to something – and I think we are – then this will happen. There are niches to fill. So the real questions become: What are the actions of any particular entity? Are they operating ethically or unethically? The commercialization of psychedelics raises concerns about the potential for bad actors, but there can be bad actors in pure non-profit and in pure academia. The potential on the monetary side is obviously increased once you introduce a business model. So I think there’s a rationale for increased concern about bad actors. But the fact that business is jumping into this is not a bad thing in itself. It’s a 100 % expected outcome, and overall it’s a good thing. We just have to keep our eyes on the way people are operating.
The title of your ICPR talk will be: “Psychedelics as behavior change agents.” What can we expect?
I want this to be a big-picture presentation that draws from multiple lines of evidence. Not about the treatment of this or that disorder, or this or that effect, but really drawing across all that. The overall point is that psychedelics can occasion behavior change. They seem to be powerful ways to induce mental and behavioral plasticity. We have a whole lot more to figure out on the biology of that and how to most properly leverage psychedelics towards those aims. There’s also a lot to figure out about so-called ‘integration’, but it’s probably that people are left in a state of increased neuroplasticity, which can depend on many mechanisms. So I’d like to present the basic argument that, in the broadest sense, these are plasticity-inducing agents.

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