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Healing Hallucinogens: Ohio State Researchers Explore Psychedelics as Medical Therapies

Ongoing studies by OSU and others have shown that some psychedelic drugs with shady pasts—including mushrooms, LSD and others—can be used to help those with hard-to-treat mental health conditions.

Randy Edwards
Psilocybin mushrooms photographed in Oregon

Jason Slot’s interest in mycology—the study of fungi—began as a teenager, foraging for edible mushrooms in the public forests near Boston’s South Shore communities where he grew up. He learned the where and when for finding the tight clusters of honey mushrooms and the large gray caps of oyster mushrooms (which the Japanese call hiratake).

He also learned to identify the genus Amanita, which includes some of the most toxic mushrooms known to science. As a youth, he steered clear of these, because “some of them can be eaten, but [the genus] also includes some of the most toxic mushrooms out there,” says Slot, now an associate professor of plant pathology at Ohio State University. “They’re the cause of most accidental mushroom poisoning.”

What Slot didn’t know at the time was that other fungi would later be the source of great scholarly fascination for him and, at times, significant professional frustration. In college, as he worked toward his doctorate in biology, he would develop a scientific interest in the genus Psilocybe—the mushrooms that produce psilocybin and psilocin, chemicals with psychoactive properties.

Mushrooms of this species have been called “magic,” but the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration calls them a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act, meaning that the chemicals produced by Psilocybe mushrooms have “a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision.” The strict government regulations that stem from this classification, along with the stigma attached to psychedelic drugs created by decades of the federal war on drugs, has made research into these mushrooms and other psychedelic chemicals challenging, if not career-stunting, for many academics.

Jason Slot, an associate professor of plant pathology at Ohio State University, is the director of educational initiatives at OSU’s new Center for Psychedelic Drug Research and Education.

Despite the obstacles, researchers in the U.S. and around the world persevered. Some, like Slot, focused on studying the evolution or ecology of the mushrooms. But medical researchers have had an interest in psychedelics for decades, and after years of suppression, a growing body of studies has begun to rehabilitate the reputation of psilocybin and other psychedelics—including LSD, MDMA and ketamine—drugs with disreputable street names and criminal pasts. The research is ongoing, but there is significant evidence to suggest that psychedelics can be helpful in treating tenacious mental health disorders, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, says Alan Davis, director of the Center for Psychedelic Drug Research and Education in the College of Social Work at Ohio State University.

“Currently, there have been clinical trials completed for people with addiction, depression, PTSD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, social anxiety [and] end-of-life distress in patients who are terminally ill,” says Davis, who launched the center in 2022 with the help of a $1.5 million private donation. “All of those studies so far have shown really promising effects.” The research suggests that treatment with psychedelics, when combined with psychotherapy, can “reduce and, for some, ameliorate, the mental health problems that they are dealing with. With some studies, they’ve seen that those positive effects can last six to 12 months.”

These results probably would not have surprised researchers in the 1950s, when chemicals like LSD and psilocybin were being touted as wonder drugs, and LSD as a treatment for alcoholism was showing surprising success. In the 1960s, however, “psychedelic” came to represent a cultural revolution that disrupted institutions and threatened the establishment. Widespread recreational use, highly publicized (and sometimes hyperbolic) “bad trips” and the perceived connection between the drugs and radical politics undermined the science supporting these therapies. In 1970, the Controlled Substances Act attached serious criminal penalties to psychedelics and effectively ended research into their beneficial aspects.

In recent years, however, there’s been a resurgence in research, some relaxation of federal restrictions, voter-approved decriminalization in Oregon and Colorado, and widespread public interest in psychedelics, the latter driven in part by the 2018 publication of “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence” by Michael Pollan, the journalist and author of multiple books about righteous food consumption. In the book, and a subsequent Netflix series, Pollan argues for destigmatizing psychedelics and details his own “trips” into an altered state of consciousness.

In 2020, Oregon voters passed a ballot measure to legalize controlled, therapeutic use of psilocybin mushrooms.

OSU has been engaged in this rapidly changing environment for a few years but has recently stepped up its game. At the new Center for Psychedelic Drug Research and Education, Davis and Slot (who serves as director of educational initiatives) are developing a 25-hour continuing education program and an undergraduate minor in psychedelic studies. And in January, the center will launch its first clinical trial, exploring the use of psilocybin in military veterans suffering from PTSD.

Other universities have been in the field longer, but Davis says Ohio State is the first to locate such a center in a social work setting. Educating individuals with social work degrees is crucial, he says, because they represent the largest segment of the workforce dealing directly with patients. He expects the center to attract many mental health professionals who want to learn more about these treatments, which he anticipates will win government approval within the next few years.

“Usually, the only message that’s been out there is, ‘drugs are bad, drugs are dangerous, don’t do drugs.’ This is meant to provide that foundational knowledge for people so that they can understand all the interdisciplinary work that’s been done about psychedelics,” Davis says.

Scientists don’t know, exactly, how psychedelics affect consciousness, but they know that psilocybin and other psychoactive substances are chemically similar to the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is important to attention, mood and perception. A theory receiving a lot of attention is that these substances have such a profound effect on the conscious state, including trippy hallucinations and a feeling of being connected to a wider, sometimes spiritual world, because they affect a network in the brain that focuses inward and on the self, Davis says.

When this “default mode network” is calmed, parts of the brain that normally don’t interact suddenly begin to connect. Davis compares it to the opening of a group chat, where before there had been a single phone line.

“People will describe ego dissolution, the loss of a sense of self, of feeling connected to a higher power or to the universe,” says Davis, who has been involved in many clinical trials at Johns Hopkins University, where he did postgraduate work and holds a faculty appointment. “People often describe these experiences as the most spiritually significant in their lives.”

Elsewhere on Ohio State’s campus, researchers are preparing to participate in a stage 3 clinical trial to study the therapeutic benefits of psilocybin for patients with treatment-resistant depression. The trial is sponsored by Compass Pathways, a publicly traded health care company that has been a private sector leader in psychedelic medicine research. OSU will be one of several sites for the study, with Dr. Subhdeep Virk, the medical director at OSU’s Harding Hospital, as the principal investigator for the site. Dr. Zachary Kelm, a psychiatrist at OSU Wexner Medical Center, will assist with the integration therapy as part of the study.

“Psychedelics seem to have potential in terms of treatment for mental health conditions,” Kelm says. There is some growing data, still in its relatively early stages, that thus far is promising, from both a safety standpoint and a potential efficacy standpoint.

“But it’s really important that we let the research and the science play out,” Kelm says.

Still, some are not willing to wait, especially when it comes to naturally occurring organisms, like mushrooms, that have been used by indigenous cultures for centuries.

In November, Colorado voters approved a ballot measure legalizing the use of psilocybin and psilocin in state-regulated clinics, two years after Oregon voters passed a similar bill. Colorado’s ballot issue also legalized personal, private use for adults, along with other psychedelic compounds—DMT, ibogaine and mescaline. Efforts to decriminalize possession are ongoing in more than a dozen other states, while some state lawmakers have introduced legislation to authorize additional study of the health benefits.

Possession and cultivation of magic mushrooms remains a felony at the federal level in Ohio, although various species of Psilocybe grow wild here.

For Sarah, a 40-something mom of two who lives in the Columbus suburbs, the psychedelic revolution never ended. Experimenting with LSD and hallucinogenic mushrooms was “part of the college experience” in the 1990s, despite their illegal status. More recreational than spiritual, psychedelics were both an act of rebellion and a ritual for building community within the counterculture she embraced.

At some point over the next two decades, as she built a career and had children, her use of psychedelics became more intentional, because she found they opened her mind to something somewhat inexplicable, but powerful.

“You’re in college, and it’s a time for experimenting, and it’s more recreational, but then you can see what a profound experience it is, even if you were at a party at the time. As an adult, you want to access that again.”

And she has, infrequently, continued to take an occasional psychedelic trip, always with close friends, usually in the comfort of the forests she loves. Sarah, who agreed to be interviewed as long as her last name wasn’t used, has watched with excitement in recent years as psychedelics began to shed their stigma. An environmental professional and social advocate, she says the reawakening is long overdue.

“The zeitgeist of our times is one of depression and trauma. There’s an epidemic of mental illness, and [psychedelics] are a gateway to healing,” she says. “These little brown mushrooms grow all over the place. For some outside authority to tell me this substance is illegal—I question that.”

Sarah speaks of the serious issues facing humanity, from climate change to political divisiveness and wealth disparity. “We’re going to need a change of consciousness to fix all that,” she says. “I very much think hallucinogens are there to help us.”

Like many young people of his generation, Jason Slot also had a recreational relationship with magic mushrooms in college and, in fact, says they helped spur his interest in science. His route to studying them, though, came through his formal studies of biochemistry and molecular biology at Boston University, where he became interested in symbiosis and, especially, the influence of symbiosis on evolution.

Beyond medicine, Slot says we can learn a lot from mushrooms, and the government’s prohibition-style approach to them set back researchers decades during a revolutionary time in the biological sciences, especially genetics. He hopes the move toward destigmatizing psychedelics continues.

“I don’t think psychedelics are going away. They get at the nature of consciousness, of the relationship between the mind and the body,” Slot says. “These are questions fundamental to our nature.” 

A tab of LSD is cut into smaller pieces to create microdoses

A Psychedelic Glossary

Default Mode Network

A web of interacting regions of the brain that seems to “light up” in neuroimaging scans when the brain is internally focused, such as when ruminating, daydreaming or otherwise engaged in self-referential thoughts. Some research suggests that psychedelic substances affect the brain by turning down the volume in this network, allowing for increased connectivity between other areas of the brain, leading to ego dissolution and altered conscious states.

Hallucinogens

A group of drugs that alter a person’s awareness of their surroundings and may cause intense changes in mood or thoughts. They may inspire hallucinations, experiences or images that may seem real but are not. Some hallucinogens are derived from plants or mushrooms, and some are synthetic. Indigenous cultures around the world have used hallucinogenic plants and fungi for thousands of years in religious or healing rituals. The National Institute on Drug Abuse divides hallucinogens into two categories: the “classic” psychedelics (e.g. LSD, psilocybin) and the dissociative drugs (e.g. PCP, ketamine).

LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide)

Also known as acid, this psychedelic compound was first synthesized in 1938 from the organic compounds produced by ergot, a fungus that infects grain. For a decade or so, LSD showed promising results in the treatment of addiction, but it was also the centerpiece of a secret CIA mind-control project in the 1950s and 1960s. LSD also became emblematic of 1960s counterculture and radical politics and was banned in 1968. In recent years, some have embraced “microdosing”—taking small amounts of LSD or other hallucinogens on a specific schedule—to enhance creativity and mental health.

MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine)

Also known as ecstasy or molly, MDMA is a synthetic psychedelic that was used as a tool by psychotherapists because it reportedly helped patients process painful emotions. The addition of MDMA to the Controlled Substance Schedule 1 list put an end to its therapeutic use, but recent drug trials suggest it can be effective in treating post-traumatic stress disorder.

Psilocybin

The principal psychoactive compound found in psilocybin mushrooms. Neuroscientists are researching how psilocybin interacts with the neurotransmitter serotonin, affecting attention, mood and perception.

Timothy Leary, a Harvard psychologist and psychedelic guru, popularized LSD in the early 1960s. This 1979 file photo shows him at his home in Beverly Hills, California.

Psychedelic Guide

Sometimes called a “trip sitter” or “integration coach,” they help safely guide the patient or user through the psychedelic experience. This work can be part of the therapeutic process by trained therapists, but a growing cottage industry offers to help journeyers through trips taken outside the clinical venue. This practice is unregulated, and there are no formal qualifications for this role, though many companies are offering the services online. In fall 2022, the University of California at Berkeley announced a new training program for guides. The university says its nine-month training is the first program of its kind in the country, and the first cohort includes doctors, nurses, social workers, psychologists and chaplains.

Set and Setting

The relationship among the psychedelic user, their state of mind and the external environment where the psychedelic experience happens—an idea popularized by Harvard psychologist and psychedelic guru Timothy Leary in the early ’60s. The importance of set and setting is now considered fundamental to a positive psychological experience, perhaps making the difference between a healing, mystical experience or a few hours of anxiety and frightening hallucinations.

This story is from the January 2023 issue of Columbus Monthly.