Psychedelics research and public education elevated by multiple gifts

September 15, 2021
By: Blake Edgar

The University of California, Berkeley’s Center for the Science of Psychedelics (BCSP) is benefitting from five philanthropic gifts announced today that provide a total of $7 million to initiate a robust national conversation about psychedelics and society, to commence novel research studies on how psychedelic compounds alter our brain and behavior, and to launch a unique training curriculum for facilitators of the psychedelic experience.

Recent years have seen a renaissance in scientific, medical, and public interest in the use of psychedelic drugs such as psilocybin, MDMA (Ecstasy), and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). Many clinical trials have demonstrated that pairing psychedelic compounds with psychotherapy can effectively treat several mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, addiction, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Psychedelic-assisted therapy has shown great promise for improving mental health, but there is still much to learn about the mechanisms of actions of psychedelics on the mind and brain,” said Michael Silver, a UC Berkeley neuroscientist and the BCSP’s inaugural director. “These philanthropic gifts will enable the BCSP to conduct multiple studies of the effects of psychedelics and to serve as a reliable source of information about all aspects of psychedelics. Together, they will allow the BCSP to become a global leader in public education and scientific knowledge about psychedelics.”

Launched last fall, the BCSP will accomplish basic scientific research on the underlying mechanisms for psychedelics’ cognitive and neural activity in healthy human volunteers and experimental animal models. Unlike psychedelics centers at other universities, Berkeley’s approach is distinctively broad and interdisciplinary, incorporating the diverse expertise of neuroscientists, psychologists, educators, and journalists.

This surge in philanthropic support permits the BCSP to pursue its first phase of programming. The largest gift, from an anonymous donor, provides $1 million annually for five years to advance the center’s mission of research, training, and public education about psychedelics and their roles in society.

Funds from this anonymous gift will be combined with a $250,000 contribution from a second anonymous donor to initiate and evaluate training of cohorts of facilitators, who will guide novices through safe and supportive psychedelic experiences. In a first-of-its-kind, university-based experiential learning program, Berkeley will partner with the Graduate Theological Union to train chaplains, clinicians, and social workers in providing mental health and spiritual care with psychedelic therapy.

Participants in the training program will be eligible to volunteer in the BCSP’s research studies in order to gain firsthand experience with psychedelic journeys and to assist more junior trainees. Initially, the BCSP intends to conduct studies with psilocybin, the principal psychoactive chemical in “magic mushrooms,” contingent on federal, state, and university regulatory approvals. Researchers in the BCSP will characterize the neural basis for psilocybin’s therapeutic efficacy as well as its ability to improve cognitive flexibility, alter visual perception, and engender feelings of awe.

Photo of Michael Silver, partially lit by blue light and partially in shadow, with two digital representations of brains lit up in pink on a pink wall behind him.
Neuroscientist Michael Silver directs the Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics. Photo by Elena Zhukova.

Three of the new gifts further the BCSP’s public outreach and education endeavors. The Saisei Foundation, led by author and fitness expert Tim Ferriss, is contributing more than $800,000 over three years to create fellowships for early- and mid-career journalists to report on the science, business, policy, and culture of psychedelics for mainstream news outlets and to develop the knowledge needed to cover this fast-moving subject in print and audio media.

The Ferriss — UC Berkeley Psychedelic Journalism Fellowship, overseen by BCSP co-founder and John S. and James L. Knight Professor of Journalism Michael Pollan, will be modeled on the UC Berkeley — 11th Hour Food and Farming Journalism Fellowships program that was previously established.

“As the field of psychedelics explodes, we’re going to need sophisticated journalism to provide the public with reliable information and the field with accountability’” said Pollan, whose book How to Change Your Mind explored the resurging science of psychedelics. “The Ferriss Fellowship will help the Graduate School of Journalism support young journalists working in this area, which in turn will hasten the establishment of psychedelics as an important and vibrant journalistic beat.”

The BCSP’s efforts to broaden public knowledge about psychedelics gained a huge boost thanks to a nearly $1 million grant from the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation. This will establish a self-paced Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) inspired by the “Science of Happiness” course created by Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, which has enrolled more than 500,000 students. The curriculum for the “Psychedelics 101” MOOC will be developed by BCSP-affiliated faculty, including neurobiologist David Presti.

“We believe that psychedelic-assisted therapy has the potential to help people suffering from debilitating mental health conditions. So, we are thrilled to support the ‘Psychedelics 101’ course and look forward to seeing the impact of this important project,” said Alexandra Cohen, president of the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation.

To expand the BCSP’s role as a source of authoritative and objective perspectives on psychedelics, funds will be used to create a website, a weekly newsletter, and a bimonthly podcast. The BCSP website will provide thoughtfully vetted information about the nature of psychedelics and will educate the public about current research and therapeutic uses. It will also help lead the rapidly changing national and global conversations concerning psychedelics and public policy.

The BCSP newsletter, launched with a $100,000 gift from Dick Simon, will be a curated weekly dispatch — in a style similar to that of health newsletter STAT Morning Rounds — that reports on the latest findings published in peer-reviewed journals and current media stories about psychedelics from multiple angles: scientific, economic, political, legal, and cultural. A bimonthly podcast produced by the BCSP will draw on the talents of Berkeley journalism students to interrogate the promise and potential pitfalls of psychedelics and to present diverse voices representing the psychedelic renaissance.

The BCSP’s research program is in the process of obtaining approvals from regulatory agencies before beginning its experimental studies. In the meantime, the first public education, outreach, and training efforts will start this fall.