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The world's first psilocybin research center is opening in Jamaica
FieldTrip is advancing the realm of clinical psychedelic testing.
- FieldTrip Ventures is opening the world's first psilocybin research center at the University of the West Indies.
- More research on magic mushrooms follows mounting evidence of the efficacy of ketamine and MDMA.
- Ronan Levy of FieldTrip believes psychedelics could help treat a wide range of mental health conditions.
When I noticed articles floating around about the opening of the world's first psilocybin research center, I figured they were from satire websites. Sure, the case for therapeutic psychedelics is growing: ketamine is the first psychedelic to be legally prescribed for depression in America; MAPS is entering phase 3 trials for MDMA for the treatment of PTSD; iboga and ayahausca are used in addiction treatment in other nations. And, of course, John Hopkins announced the opening of the first psychedelic research center last month.
But a center focused solely on. . . magic mushrooms?
Thank Toronto-based FieldTrip Ventures for that. Ronan Levy is one of the founders. Having cut his teeth in the Canadian medical marijuana business, I was excited to chat with him about this exciting new project (you can hear our full conversation here). The '60s might have been the golden era of psychedelic experimentation, but we are entering a new phase of clinical research to discover just how effective they are for treating a range of mental health conditions.
Given the results this far, a new era has begun.
Tim Ferriss & Michael Pollan Journey into Psychedelics | SXSW LIVE STUDIO
Derek: On FieldTrip's website, it says the mission is "to heal the sick and better the well." Let's start with the healing.
Ronan: The evidence suggests that psychedelics, broadly speaking, can help treat a number of mental health conditions, ranging from depression to anxiety to OCD to addiction. There are studies now looking at anorexia and eating disorders as well. Not all of them have been conducted at clinical-trial levels, but there's definitely been trials on a small scale for all of those conditions. Psilocybin, in particular, has been studied for use in the treatment of depression as well as addiction. I think almost any mental health condition may benefit from psilocybin and other psychedelics. That seems to be where the evidence is leading.
Derek: Their illegality is especially frustrating considering the efficacy rates of SSRIs. What would you say to someone who is thinking about trying psychedelics but is still on other medication?
Ronan: We don't advocate that anybody attempt to undertake a psychedelic experience on their own. There is evidence to suggest that these molecules can be very effective in the context of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. It's not as well understood outside of that. The effects are unknown in terms of "Will it help?" Many people anecdotally say it absolutely does, but then there's broader concerns of whether you're not carefully considering what other medications or supplements you're using. We would say do it under the context of a medical professional, but presently there are no medical professionals licensed to actually provide psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. At this point, we don't advocate that people try this out on their own until it's better understood.
Derek: Michael Pollan writes extensively about the need for a guide, someone leading you through the experience.
Ronan: That's where the evidence is and we'll follow the evidence. That certainly doesn't mean that it doesn't merit exploring the potential of psychedelics outside of the context of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. However, there's no evidence on that yet right now, so we remain neutral.
On site are representatives Johnathan Werynski (left) and Ronan Levy from CanvasRX.
Photo by Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Derek: Understood. I appreciate your focus on being evidence-based. I'm also an advocate for cannabis. One thing that has perturbed me has been the CBD explosion, when the efficacy rate in all the studies that I've read is4 00 milligrams and above, yet coffee shops sell five milligrams for $8. Do you foresee any dangers of this happening with psychedelics?
Ronan: There is potential danger. They're powerful molecules. They're psychoactive and psychotropic. Anytime you're affecting brain chemistry merits caution and prudence. Do I foresee a future where they're being added to coffee? Not likely, no. Just like you're not going to see THC being added to coffee, at least in a legal context. There are risks that bad actors or people really interested in making a buck create products that aren't necessarily safe, which lead to bad outcomes, which may lead to political backlash. Right now it seems there's a lot of momentum in favor of psychedelics, and we want to keep that momentum. The best way to do that is to make sure to advance in a very thoughtful way.
Derek: You might be wrong on one of those counts. Here in Los Angeles, the first sanctioned cannabis cafe just opened.
Ronan: That's fair. I'm not familiar. It seems that the FDA's stated position is still that CBD is not permitted in any food product. I assume the same applies on the federal perspective on THC. Hopefully, whoever's opening that cafe is doing it really thoughtfully. No one needs a bad experience.
Derek: Speaking of cannabis, you started your work with Grassfed Ventures. Was cannabis your gateway drug into psychedelics?
Ronan: Even before Grassfed Ventures, four of the five founders of FieldTrip had started two sister companies, Canadian Cannabis Clinics and CanvasRX. Canadian Cannabis Clinics is the largest network of specialized medical clinics in Canada. That's where we got our experience with alternative medications or plant-based medications.
We're open-minded, but I'd say a little bit skeptical as to the therapeutic applications of cannabis when we first started. All of us were quite moved emotionally and quite convinced logically and intuitively that cannabis is a very effective medicine for a lot of people in the therapeutic applications. When we left to start the next thing, we became aware of psychedelics and saw the parallels between cannabis and psychedelics in terms of the evidence supporting therapeutic use, which is actually greater with psychedelics than there has been for cannabis. So yes, cannabis was our gateway into psychedelics.
THE HEROIC DOSE - Dennis McKenna on Psilocybin Dosage - Magic Mushrooms
Derek: You're opening the first psilocybin research center in Jamaica at the University of the West Indies, which I find fascinating and important. How did you choose that location? Can you talk about the function of the center?
Ronan: When we became aware of the opportunity around psychedelics in terms of its therapeutic value, we ran into the challenge that anybody looking at the space runs into, which is how to build a business in an illegal industry. We're not interested in doing anything illegal. As we did our homework, we realized that there are a few jurisdictions around the world in which psilocybin mushrooms are legal. Jamaica is one of those places. Through our work in the cannabis industry, we had great contacts down there. We had very constructive conversations and became aware that there's openness to it. It made sense to start with Jamaica.
So we are opening the world's first legal research and cultivation facility focused on psilocybin-producing mushrooms in conjunction with the University of the West Indies. We have the expressed support of various ministers and various levels of government to do this work. The focus of the research facility is to essentially do a lot of the work that's been done on cannabis over the last 10 years: focus on genetics, strain development, and understand the molecular chemistry of psilocybin mushrooms. We want to understand what other molecules are of interest, which may have therapeutic effects, and isolate them, as well as develop the standards for testing for all of these things. Really, doing anything you think may have been relevant to the development of the cannabis industry.
Derek: Why did you specifically choose mushrooms?
Ronan: The business rationale is that there's a lot of white space to be studied and lots of IP to be developed. From a societal perspective, the embrace of psilocybin-producing mushrooms is going to be much easier than with the more robust experiences that you have with DMT or ayahuasca. Our hope for the facility in Jamaica is that we will eventually expand into other plant-based psychedelics, but there's enough work to be done on psilocybin-producing mushrooms, all 200 or so genetic strains.
Roger Lopez, Shaman of a Shipibo community in the Amazon jungle, conduct a session of Ayahuasca.
Photo credit: Fotoholica Press/LightRocket via Getty Images
Derek: When you talk about IP and moving into pharmaceuticals, are there any dangers that you foresee anyone being disturbed by that sort of approach to what some people consider sacred medicine?
Ronan: It's something we're certainly conscious and aware of. I don't anticipate it being an issue. Our perspective is we have no interest in diminishing the heritage or sacred beliefs of any culture. But we do believe that a consciously-operated, for-profit entity is the best way to help make the therapeutic value of psychedelic molecules available to the greatest number of people. We're trying to find the appropriate balance between cultural sensitivity and good business practices.
Derek: I originally discovered mushrooms and other psychedelics in the early nineties. It was in an environment and a community that talked about Terence McKenna and the hero's dose. In the last few years, microdosing has become very popular. I was skeptical at first, but then came to the conclusion that dosage matters and whatever helps is important.
Ronan: It hasn't been studied in depth and therefore the effects, whether it's effective or not, is not well understood. More importantly, if people perceive they're being helped then they are being helped. Whether it's the pharmacology involved in the microdosing or just the placebo effect is of less importance in my mind. The bigger concern is that the effects of long-term use of psilocybin at microdosing levels isn't well understood, so there's potential health consequences around it. A couple of months ago, the first observational study on microdosing came out and it seems very promising, but I think more research needs to be done.
Derek: Have you envisioned any sort of rollout of training courses that would be developed as the research evolves?
Ronan: Absolutely. With clinical trials going on right now, by and large the protocols that they're using are very labor- and time-intensive on part of a psychotherapist. It makes sense because they want to achieve the greatest potential results. There's a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of optimizing delivery of these services and minimize the amount of psychotherapist time that needs to be involved to deliver as good if not better outcomes than currently prescribed by the protocols.
Training people is going to be essential as you scale this, but there's not a whole lot of evidence on what to base training on outside of what exists in the current clinical trials. You can see really effective training materials and courses coming out because there hasn't been a lot of experimentation in terms of how the psychotherapy is being delivered. There are protocols that are being used right now similar to the ones that were developed in the fifties and sixties, which haven't been studied in depth as to whether the amount of psychotherapy work involved is necessary.
Emotional intelligence is a skill sought by many employers. Here's how to raise yours.
- Daniel Goleman's 1995 book Emotional Intelligence catapulted the term into widespread use in the business world.
- One study found that EQ (emotional intelligence) is the top predictor of performance and accounts for 58% of success across all job types.
- EQ has been found to increase annual pay by around $29,000 and be present in 90% of top performers.
Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
What's dead may never die, it seems<p>The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called Brain<em>Ex</em>. Brain<em>Ex </em>is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.</p><p>Brain<em>Ex</em> pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.</p><p>The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if Brain<em>Ex</em> can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.</p><p>As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.</p><p>The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.</p><p>"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told <em><a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2019/04/pig-brains-partially-revived-what-it-means-for-medicine-death-ethics/" target="_blank">National Geographic</a>.</em></p>
An ethical gray matter<p>Before anyone gets an <em>Island of Dr. Moreau</em> vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.</p><p>The Brain<em>Ex</em> solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness. </p><p>Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death. </p><p>Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?</p><p>"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/17/science/brain-dead-pigs.html" target="_blank">the <em>New York Times</em></a>. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."</p><p>One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.</p><p>The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-01216-4#ref-CR2" target="_blank">told <em>Nature</em></a> that if Brain<em>Ex</em> were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.</p><p>"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.</p><p>It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.</p><p>Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? <a href="https://bigthink.com/philip-perry/after-death-youre-aware-that-youve-died-scientists-claim" target="_blank">The distress of a partially alive brain</a>? </p><p>The dilemma is unprecedented.</p>
Setting new boundaries<p>Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, <em>Frankenstein</em>. As Farahany told <em>National Geographic</em>: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have <em>Frankenstein</em>, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."</p><p>She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.</p>
A study published Friday tested how well 14 commonly available face masks blocked the emission of respiratory droplets as people were speaking.
- The study tested the efficacy of popular types of face masks, including N95 respirators, bandanas, cotton-polypropylene masks, gaiters, and others.
- The results showed that N95 respirators were most effective, while wearing a neck fleece (aka gaiter) actually produced more respiratory droplets than wearing no mask at all.
- Certain types of homemade masks seem to be effective at blocking the spread of COVID-19.
Fischer et al.<p>A smartphone camera recorded video of the participants, and a computer algorithm counted the number of droplets they emitted. To establish a control trial, the participants spoke into the box both with and without a mask. And to make sure that the droplets weren't in fact dust from the masks, the team conducted more tests by "repeatedly puffing air from a bulb through the masks."</p>
Fischer et al.<p>The results, published Friday in <a href="https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/early/2020/08/07/sciadv.abd3083" target="_blank">Science Advances</a>, showed that some masks are pretty much useless. In particular, neck fleeces (also called gaiters) actually produced more respiratory droplets compared to the control trial — likely because the fabric breaks down big droplets into smaller ones.</p><p>The top three most effective masks were N95 respirators, surgical masks, and polypropylene-cotton masks. Bandanas performed the worst, but were slightly better than wearing no mask at all.</p>
Fischer et al.<p>Research on mask efficacy is still emerging. But the new results seem to generally align with <a href="https://newsroom.wakehealth.edu/News-Releases/2020/04/Testing-Shows-Type-of-Cloth-Used-in-Homemade-Masks-Makes-a-Difference" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">prior tests</a>. For example, a study from June published in <a href="https://aip.scitation.org/doi/10.1063/5.0016018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Physics of Fluid</a> found that bandanas (followed by folded handkerchiefs) were least effective at blocking respiratory droplets. That same study also found, as <a href="https://newsroom.wakehealth.edu/News-Releases/2020/04/Testing-Shows-Type-of-Cloth-Used-in-Homemade-Masks-Makes-a-Difference" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">others have</a>, that masks made from multiple layers of quilter's fabric were especially effective at blocking droplets.</p><p>The researchers hope other institutions will conduct similar experiments so the public can see how well different masks can block the spread of COVID-19.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"This is a very powerful visual tool to raise awareness that a very simple masks, like these homemade cotton masks, do really well to stop the majority of these respiratory droplets," Fischer told CNN. "Companies and manufacturers can set this up and test their mask designs before producing them, which would also be very useful."</p>
Sharing QAnon disinformation is harming the children devotees purport to help.
- The conspiracy theory, QAnon, is doing more harm than good in the battle to end child trafficking.
- Foster youth expert, Regan Williams, says there are 25-29k missing children every year, not 800k, as marketed by QAnon.
- Real ways to help abused children include donating to nonprofits, taking educational workshops, and becoming a foster parent.
Real ways you can help stop child trafficking<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="21fc2dc85391501eec28c4bf46d7db15"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/AXL0q9jNZGU?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Williams is the founder and CEO of <a href="http://www.seenandheard.org/" target="_blank">Seen and Heard</a>, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that helps foster youth develop character through the performing arts. She's been involved with foster youth for years; I <a href="https://bigthink.com/politics-current-affairs/child-sex-trafficking" target="_self">wrote about her work</a> in child trafficking just over a year ago. Tragically, since that time, the situation for these children has only gotten worse, in large part because of QAnon.</p><p>Williams says child trafficking is an easy cause to rally people together. Fear is also a powerful unifying force, one that QAnon believers are already primed for via the news they consume. Almost every parent cares about their children, making them the ideal target to solidify groups. </p><p>The real problem, she says, is that the youth she works with are falling for these conspiracy theories. Trauma is a particularly powerful tool for indoctrination. If you're a teenager that's been abducted or abused, your trust level is already extremely low. Then you read about a global cabal of powerful men (and a few women) secretly abusing children, and the narrative seems ready-made for your personal history.</p><p>When Williams tried to "lovingly and kindly correct" the youth she was working with after learning about the Wayfair conspiracy, the girls' response was, "well, who owns the media?" </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"She goes from this small little thing to a QAnon talking point. I've been thinking about why she would believe such a preposterous idea—and there are others; it's not just one student, and they're in in deep. I think that when something horrific happens to you as a child, it's a lot easier to distance yourself from the immediate reality that it was an uncle or a parent or a sibling that hurt you. By detaching from that immediate person, they project it onto Bill Gates or Chrissy Teigen. Then it's not so personal, it's global." </p>
A man wear a shirt with the words Q Anon as he attends a rally for President Donald Trump at the Make America Great Again Rally being held in the Florida State Fair Grounds Expo Hall on July 31, 2018 in Tampa, Florida.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images<p>As Williams mentions, there are over 30,000 kids in foster care in the Los Angeles area alone. It's easy to fall through the cracks. The systems in place aren't perfect; they're certainly underfunded. When you're in a system trying to support you yet isn't capable of doing so, viewing the world as imperfect, and even harmful, becomes the lens through which you see reality. Again, this makes for a perfect indoctrination tool.</p><p>One popular QAnon talking point is that 800,000 children are missing. As Williams says, child trafficking experts "don't buy this for a minute." The number makes for a good meme but a poor representation of the problem. </p><p>To source better data, Williams turns to the <a href="https://www.missingkids.org/" target="_blank">National Center for Missing and Exploited Children</a> (NCMEC) and the <a href="https://www.fbi.gov/services/cjis/ncic" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">National Crime Information Center</a> (NCIC). An important factor when reading data: if a teacher <em>and</em> a caregiver report a missing child to NCIC, that counts as two children, not one, which accounts for some of the fluctuations in numbers. In total, between 25,000 and 29,000 kids go missing every year. Importantly, 94 percent of those children are recovered within four to six weeks. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"They're not documenting the recovery rate. It's not like these numbers are perpetually hanging out there. So this 800,000 number is just ludicrous." </p><p>Williams compares what's going on to Black Lives Matter. Blacking out your Instagram profile picture is performative. It signals that you actually care, which is great, but if you're not supporting Black-owned businesses, for example, there are no teeth to your activism. </p><p>Of course, blacking out your profile doesn't cause the real-world harm the QAnon virus does. Sharing misinformation is ultimately harmful to the children in need of help. Williams offers the resources below—ranging from donations to nonprofits to educational trainings to becoming a foster parent—for people that actually want to do something to help victims of sexual and physical abuse. They might not make a great Twitter meme, but in the actual world, this support makes all the difference. </p><p><strong>To report abuse/neglect, call the child abuse hotline: 800.540.4000 (LA county) / 800.422.4453 (National)</strong></p><ul><li>Support anti-trafficking organizations by donating to <a rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow" href="http://savinginnocence.org/" target="_blank">Saving Innocence</a>, which runs the continuum of care from rescue to recovery, <a href="http://gozoe.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Zoe</a>, a reputable faith-based organization, and <a rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow" href="https://withtwowings.org/" target="_blank">Two Wings</a>, which helps to rehabilitate female survivors</li><li><a rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow" href="http://www.nolabrantleyspeaks.org/" target="_blank">Nola Brantley</a> offers in-person and online trainings to help combat the commercial sexual exploitation of children</li><li><a rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow" href="http://instagram.com/imrebeccabender" target="_blank">Rebecca Bender</a> is a trafficking survivor that runs "Myth Busters," which combats conspiracy theory disinformation</li><li>The <a href="https://www.instagram.com/missingkids/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">National Center</a> of Missing and Exploited Children</li><li>Operation <a href="https://www.instagram.com/ourrescue/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Underground Railroad </a></li><li><a href="https://www.instagram.com/defendinnocence/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Defend Innocence</a> offers tips for parents and caregivers to keep kids safe</li></ul><p><span></span>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>