5 Questions for Andrea Gomez
The phrase “psychedelic research” might conjure images of patients in a treatment room, receiving psilocybin-assisted therapy for PTSD, or results from surveys about people’s microdosing habits or mystical experiences. But for Andrea Gomez, an assistant professor of neurobiology at the University of California - Berkeley, psychedelic research happens on a microscopic scale, on the level of cellular synapses. Because many other researchers’ work focuses on the more immediately observable, experiential aspect of psychedelics, Gomez says some might find her focus “boring.” But the questions Gomez is studying — for instance, how might psychedelics affect a person on a cellular level? — are key to understanding how these drugs actually work, and their potential for therapeutic use.
But Gomez didn’t initially set out to study psychedelics. She began her career in the genome sciences, earning a PhD at New York University and completing postdoctoral work at the University of Basel in Switzerland. In 2020, Gomez joined the molecular and cell biology faculty at UC Berkeley, and is now a member of the executive committee of the Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics. The theme across her work has been unraveling how cells communicate with one another, and how our genetic material might direct that communication. Slight changes in those genetic instructions can result in big changes, and dysfunction in communication between synapses can lead to neurodegenerative disorders. But there’s also opportunity: tweaks to synaptic communication might also explain what happens after a psychedelic experience. The Microdose talks with Gomez about her research combining psychedelics and RNA biology, and why it might hold the key to understanding how psychedelics work.
For those of us who should have paid more attention in biology class, can you give us a refresher on the role of RNA in organisms — and why you’re studying it?
Our DNA contains genes, and genes can be made into proteins. That mechanism happens through RNA, and in that transition from DNA to RNA to protein, the RNA first needs to be processed before it can be translated into protein. That process is a cut and splice activity: you generate multiple versions of the same gene, and you need to cut out the parts that won’t become the protein, and retain the parts that will be the protein. That’s the aspect of RNA that I’m specifically interested in. We still don’t really know how all these potential versions of the same gene play into the complexity of our brain organization and plasticity.
There’s a real paradox about brain and tissue complexity in the animal kingdom: the number of genes you have doesn’t correlate with how complex your brain is. We have the same number of genes as mice, and the nematode worm C. elegans also has around 20,000 genes. How do we, with the exact same number of genes, create completely different nervous systems? So part of the reason I’m studying RNA biology is because RNA regulation can result in this complex molecular diversity. I’m interested in how that complexity then correlates with functional brain activity, brain complexity, and brain plasticity.
How might this RNA research help us understand psychedelics?
This work could help us understand how an initial subjective psychedelic experience gets consolidated and solidified. For instance, what kind of changes in neural circuits can we identify? There was a recent study that looked at those changes up to seven days after a psychedelic experience, which is short term, and there have been structural changes seen at the level of synapses for up to 30 days. That’s the time point we’re really interested in: what organizing programs in our DNA could be driving long-term structural changes?
There has never been a more exciting – or bewildering – time in the world of psychedelics. Don’t miss a beat.
Understanding the mechanism behind psychedelics seems like a question worth pursuing in its own right. As institutions and companies are exploring how to roll out psychedelic therapies, what kind of real-world applications do you think this work will have?
Right now, the clinical applications of psychedelics include depression or addiction, but people are trying to use these compounds for every ailment on the planet. It may be the case that these compounds are not best for every single context. For instance, anybody that's on the schizo-affective spectrum should be cautious about these compounds.
The trend in the regular pharma world is to think about targeted therapeutics, to think about an individual’s body chemistry — this applies to psychedelics, too. These compounds should be used in contexts in which they’re appropriate, and understanding the mechanistic aspects of how they function in the body will help us understand when that’s the case. If we were able to identify, say, particular molecular pathways engaged by psychedelics, we could potentially manipulate them, which could provide an additional avenue for therapeutics.
In The Microdose’s 2021 end-of-year review, we asked a couple dozen people in the psychedelics field what developments they found most exciting from the previous twelve months. In your response, you mentioned efforts to center Indigenous voices. What do hope people in the field are considering as they continue work on psychedelics?
The contemporary models on how to have psychedelic ceremonies in group settings are heavily borrowed from Indigenous ceremonies and practices, as is the stewardship of psychedelics: Indigenous people made sure these medicines and rituals were not destroyed during the Spanish Inquisition, for example. These efforts should be recognized. It would be a great loss of knowledge to not allow Indigneous people to have their say in the psychedelics world. For instance, should we be medicalizing these compounds? Or if we want to give back to the communities who protected these plants from destruction and eradication from the Earth, what form does that take? The answers usually don’t fall in line with the typical pharma model, but this is an important conversation to be had.
I’ve noticed that in conversations about Native or Indigenous representation in psychedelics, there’s an implicit assumption that such representation is somehow separate from the perspective or interests of researchers. You are Laguna Pueblo and Chicana; you are also a researcher. How do you think about these intersections?
My perspective is just my perspective. I don’t represent all Laguna Pueblo members. I’m also trained in the Western style, but I would consider my science Indigenous. I view my questions about the complexity of the brains as an Indigenous science, which also overlaps with Western science. Even using the term “Indigenous perspective” — as though there’s some kind of unified vision on what we’ve all agreed upon. It would be like referring to the pan European vision on psychedelics: it’s too broad. I think that contributes to the challenges the Western community has when trying to approach reciprocity. An Indigenous strategy would be to think locally — where are you, physically, and what is your relationship to that environment — versus the idea that “we owe this much.”
But there is this idea that these viewpoints are mutually exclusive with business perspectives. Many of my colleagues and I are very concerned about the efforts made to show that someone has consulted an Indigenous person, as if that’s Indigenous approval; I worry about people seeking an “Indigenous badge of approval” to proceed with their work. It’s important that individuals or companies are interacting with communities.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.