Timothy Leary’s 1960s Psilocybin Project Got Him Banned From Harvard. Now It’s Back.

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Harvard put psychedelics on the map more than sixty years ago. It’s now the latest university to focus on psychedelics as sustainable and potentially more effective for mental health issues than conventional drug treatments.

It’s been a long, strange trip for psilocybin at Harvard. More than half a century ago, the university was at the forefront of the movement before leading to what would become the War on Drugs. Now, the university is bringing psilocybin research back as interest and investments are on the uptick.

The Harvard Psilocybin Project, helmed by professor Timothy Leary and his assistant Richard Alpert, was discredited in the early ’60s over questions surrounding ethics and unscientific experimentation. The two were released from their contracts in 1963. The move got Leary labeled “the most dangerous man in America” by Richard Nixon, and a lumped together “drugs” category labeled enemy number one.

Leary continued to promote the benefits of psychedelics despite the backlash, pushing for research and exploration until his death in 1996. Alpert became a spiritual leader, and changed his name Ram Dass. While less vocal about psychedelics once he found his guru in India, his brand of wellness was similar to the spiritual experiences often reported on psychedelic trips. He died in 2019.

The Harvard Center for Neuroscience of Psychedelics

But were both alive today, they’d likely be thrilled at the news that Harvard has decided to “turn on, tune in and drop out” by resuscitating its long lost psilocybin research with the launch of the new Center for Neuroscience of Psychedelics at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH).

Helmed by Jerry F. Rosenbaum, a professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, the center opened last year. Its aim is to look at how psychedelics can be used in treating depression and anxiety, among other mental health issues.

“I don’t remember that it occurred to me that anybody would object to it,” Rosenbaum told Harvard’s Crimson about the launch and the university’s history. “So I didn’t really ask for permission. We just did it,” he says.

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“Given what seemed the inevitability of psychedelics, it was clearly our responsibility and mission to get involved and understand them better.”

According to Rosenbaum, Harvard’s new center will focus on the underlying effects of psychedelics on the brain. It will assign teams to study the neurochemistry of the substances while another will look at fMRI studies of brain activity. Trials on humans haven’t begun at Harvard yet, but feedback on the goal has been positive.

“The fact that we’re in the game, have lots going on, or a fair amount going on, adds some scientific credibility to the area, at least for those who aren’t already in the bubble,” says Rosenbaum. “It has, in some ways, already been our biggest contribution.”

Harvard is not alone in (re)starting this exploration into psychedelics; Johns Hopkins is studying psychedelics with a new research facility; UC Berkeley and NYU are also studying psychedelics, to name a few.

For Harvard, though, there’s more reason to explore psychedelic substances including psilocybin, LSD, DMT, MDMA, and ketamine. Several towns in Massachusetts, including nearby Cambridge, have passed legislation recently that decriminalize psychedelic use. It’s part of a growing trend across the country, following largely in the footsteps of medical cannabis.

Most notably, there’s Oregon, where psychedelics are decriminalized and psilocybin specifically is legal when used in a clinical setting. This is expected to lead to an economic boom in the state with people traveling to Oregon just for treatment. (There are retreats and centers around the world in regions where psychedelics are legal, too.)

Psychedelic wellness industry

Early research into psilocybin is promising. A study published earlier this month by Johns Hopkins, found treatment with psilocybin showed lasting benefits for up to 12 months after the sessions.

“Psilocybin not only produces significant and immediate effects, it also has a long duration, which suggests that it may be a uniquely useful new treatment for depression,” Roland Griffiths, PhD, a study investigator and founding director of the center, said in a statement.

“Compared to standard antidepressants, which must be taken for long stretches of time, psilocybin has the potential to enduringly relieve the symptoms of depression with one or two treatments,” he said.

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“Our findings add to evidence that, under carefully controlled conditions, this is a promising therapeutic approach that can lead to significant and durable improvements in depression,” says Natalie Gukasyan, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

But she adds a caveat: “the results we see are in a research setting and require quite a lot of preparation and structured support from trained clinicians and therapists, and people should not attempt to try it on their own.”

The pharmaceutical industry is showing interest in psychedelics, too. Merck partnered with psychedelic research company Novamind last year. The industry has seen a groundswell of investments into all manner of potential drugs, treatments, and therapies, and now includes celebrity backers including Shark Tank’s Kevin O’Leary, former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson, and PayPal co-founder, Peter Thiel.

According to 2021 reporting, the psychedelics industry will reach a value of nearly $7 billion by 2027, up from $2 billion in 2019.

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