Advancing the science: 5 Questions for two National Institutes of Health researchers
Jess Laudie and Nancy Diazgranados discuss the NIH's new Psychedelic Science and Medicine Interest Group.
Between the 1940s and 1960s, researchers in the U.S. were just beginning to probe the effects of hallucinogenic drugs like LSD and psilocybin in treating mental illness. But in 1970, that work was cut short when Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act. The law classified psychedelic drugs as Schedule I, a category for substances deemed to have a high potential for abuse and no currently accepted medical use. Research involving Schedule I drugs required onerous approvals and many scientists moved away from work involving psychedelics.
In the 2000s, a new wave of interest in psychedelics began, and researchers and advocates called on the National Institutes of Health, or NIH, to begin funding psychedelic research again. In 2021, the NIH funded psilocybin research at Yale and Johns Hopkins Medicine — the first grants for studying classic psychedelics the agency had awarded in decades. Recently, the NIH started a Psychedelic Science and Medicine Interest Group, signaling increased interest in the topic among researchers affiliated with the government agency. The Microdose spoke with Jess Laudie, a postbaccalaureate fellow at the NIH who founded the psychedelics group, and her advisor Nancy Diazgranados, a deputy clinical director at the NIH, about the new group and what they hope it accomplishes.
Jess, what led you to found this new psychedelics group at the NIH?
Laudie: As an undergraduate, I was a neuroscience major. In a class on neuropsychopharmacology, I learned about the clinical trials underway using psychedelics. That planted the seed for me. When I came to the NIH, I looked to see what research there was with psychedelics, and ended up at a conference where I sat in on lectures and conversations about psychedelic research. I realized there wasn’t really a space for this conversation within the NIH and I wanted to talk about it with more people. That conference was in October 2022; by December, we’d formed this interest group at the NIH. Our listserv has over a hundred people already, and at our first meeting in January, over 75 people attended.
Nancy, you’ve studied ketamine and experimental therapeutics for mental health, and you’ve been at the NIH for more than a decade. Has discussion about these substances changed over time?
Diazgranados: There has been an ongoing discussion; a lot of people at the NIH are interested. There have been conferences organized within NIH by people who want to advance the science, but there’s been no formal space for these discussions. Often, the conversations happen behind closed doors, not with a large group of people with a common interest.
There are over 300 interest groups at the NIH, and none of them had included psychedelics until Jess suggested starting this group. I thought it was a fabulous idea. There was once a lot of stigma around this type of research, but I think that’s starting to change.
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What are the goals or hopes for this group?
Laudie: The amazing thing about the NIH is that there are so many disciplines represented; we wanted this to be a space for people with different research backgrounds to talk about a shared interest. We also want to make connections between researchers and people outside the NIH, and to bring this conversation into the public space. The interest group is hosted by the NIH, but it’s open to people outside the NIH; anyone can sign up for our listserv and attend our meetings. We wanted there to be some formal structure where anyone with an interest in psychedelics could learn about the science and share perspectives.
Diazgranados: During our second event, we had patients attend; someone who took part in a psychedelic study at Hopkins joined our discussion and shared their thoughts about what we should study next. We want that kind of discussion; we want to hear from all sides, not just the people conducting the research. We need to have stakeholders like patients be part of the discussion as well.
The group’s monthly meetings feature a speaker who gives a talk and answers audience questions after. So far, your speakers have all been academic researchers. How do you select who you invite to speak — and do you plan to invite non academic speakers in the future?
Laudie: Initially, the advisors involved with the group talked about the different aspects of psychedelic research, like clinical and preclinical, to make sure we were covering a variety of perspectives. There aren’t too many universities actively doing research with psychedelics yet, so we had a limited selection of places to look for speakers. The NIH hosted a speaker series a few years ago centered around psychedelics, so looking at that line-up and which universities they came from gave us some direction.
Diazgranados: I would not be opposed to having people from industry, and I believe we should. We’re following the science here, and there’s a lot of interest from people in companies who are trying to get their product into the market but are also passionate about funding and conducting research.
Are there any areas of psychedelic research either of you are particularly keen to explore in your research or this group’s discussions?
Laudie: There’s a lot of hype around clinical trials, but my background is in neuroscience, so I’m really interested in understanding the mechanisms of how psychedelics work. There’s so much we don’t know yet about that.
Diazgranados: I’ve worked with experimental therapeutics for a long time, and I’m really tired of seeing “me too” drugs — drugs that work, leading companies to just copy the same drugs instead of developing new ones. With psychedelics, there’s an opportunity to do better research and move that forward. We can learn about how these drugs act on different neurotransmitters, leading to a greater understanding of how the brain functions as a whole, how pathology functions, and how we can correct dysfunction. Some of these areas have been neglected for a long time due to stigma, and I’m looking forward to a better understanding in these areas.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Correction: This post originally misstated the NIH’s history of funding psychedelics studies. The two psilocybin studies the agency funded in 2021 were not the first grants for studying classic psychedelics the agency had awarded in 50 years; the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the NIH since 1992, issued grants to study psychedelics in the 1990s.