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New UW-Madison center will research the use of psychoactive substances for medical treatments

Image courtesy of Paul Hutson
UW Transdisciplinary Center for Research in Psychoactive Substances
This treatment room at the UW Transdisciplinary Center for Research in Psychoactive Substances is designed to be a comfortable and safe space for patients in clinical studies. The studies use innovative therapies with psilocybin and MDMA to help treat addiction and psychiatric disorders.

Growing evidence has shown that psychoactive and psychedelic compounds can potentially help treat substance abuse and psychiatric disorders like major depression, PTSD, and alcohol or opioid abuse.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison has been researching this field of psychoactive substances, from cannabis to magic mushrooms to ecstasy, for about seven years according to UW-Madison school of pharmacy professor Paul Hutson. Now, the school has officially launched a new research center to coordinate this ongoing research and education in psychedelic compounds.

The mission of the UW Transdisciplinary Center for Research in Psychoactive Substances is to explore how substances like MDMA and psilocybin affect the brain and behavior when combined with psychotherapy.

Hutson also serves as the founding director of the center, and he notes that while some of their work involves drugs with a clear psychedelic effect, it is not the sole focus.

"There's a really strong justification for calling the center, focusing on psychoactive substances. Because there's some suggestion that the therapeutic effect of these drugs, if there is a therapeutic effect that we define in more complex and mature studies that are underway, that this effect may not require a psychedelic experience," he explains.

Image courtesy of Paul Hutson
UW–Madison Transdisciplinary Center for Research in Psychoactive Substances
Paul Hudson is a University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Pharmacy Professor and also serves as the founding director of the UW Transdisciplinary Center for Research in Psychoactive Substances.

Hutson notes that while there's often misunderstandings about psychedelics, people's concerns about the potential dangers of using psychedelics in an uncontrolled and protected environment are valid. Hutson hopes that the work of the Transdisciplinary Center for Research in Psychoactive Substances can help bring more transparency to the process and to the substances they are studying.

"That’s one of the things that I think we’re trying to provide with the center, is clarity of why we’re doing this work and how we’re doing this work in a structured, safe, somewhat complex fashion to try and improve the safety of the whole process," he says.

For example, people who are treated with psilocybin undergo a psychiatric exam, six to eight hours of preparatory counseling, and make a communication plan before treatment according to Hutson. When someone does undergo treatment, the eight hour session is spent with two trained guides followed up by an integration session the following day.

"This is not anything like a recreational dose of a psychedelic," notes Hutson. "I want to also emphasize that even though these drugs, although they seem to have some dramatic effects for depression, for substance use disorders, are not going to work for everybody."

There are currently four clinical trials in phases 1 to 3 at UW–Madison to prepare for New Drug Applications with the Food and Drug Administration, according to Hutson.

Institutions across the U.S. — that have been conducting studies advancing the medicinal use of psychoactive and psychedelic substances for depression and substance use disorders — have not had an appropriate representation of Black, Native American, Asian and Hispanic subjects. Hutson says that the center is actively working to increase the participation of underrepresented groups, address their concerns, and be transparent about the process.

"The lack of this diversity is raising the question about what kind of response we can expect from these treatments in these individuals, but also if we need to modify how we approach the dosing of these patients," Huston notes.

Other components of this research that make participating difficult include transportation for multiple trips, and time away from work or children.

"We're anticipating that we're going to need to make some adjustments in terms of how we not only present the research, but how we can make it easier for [people] to participate," Hutson says.

In addition to the research component of the center, Huston says its ongoing education efforts will support future scientists, teachers, and practitioners. They will offer the nation's first Master of Science in Psychoactive Pharmaceutical Investigation, a Capstone Certificate, and will host a Psychedelic Symposium in November.

Audrey Nowakowski hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM in 2014.
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