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UC Davis Launches Institute for Psychedelics and Neurotherapeutics

The University of California, Davis announced this week that it is launching a new institute that aims to “advance basic knowledge about the mechanisms of psychedelics and translate it into safe and effective treatments for diseases such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, among others.”

Called “the Institute for Psychedelics and Neurotherapeutics,” it will “bring together scientists across a range of disciplines and partner with the pharmaceutical industry to ensure that key discoveries lead to new medicines for patients,” the university said in the announcement, adding that the institute “was specifically designed to facilitate collaborations across campus.”

The institute “will be funded in part by a contribution of approximately $5 million from the deans of the College of Letters and Science and the School of Medicine, the vice chancellor for Research, and the Office of the Provost,” the school said, noting that the funding distinguishes it from other centers involved in the same field of study.

“While other psychedelic science centers have been formed across the country with gifts from philanthropists, the UC Davis institute is notable for also being supported by substantial university funds,” the university said. 

The university said that another “unique feature of the UC Davis institute will be its focus on chemistry and the development of novel neurotherapeutics.”

David E. Olson has been selected to become the founder director of the institute.

“Psychedelics have a lot of therapeutic potential, but we can do better,” said Olson, whose group published a paper three years ago “describing the first nonhallucinogenic analogue of a psychedelic compound capable of promoting neuroplasticity and producing antidepressant and anti-addictive effects in preclinical models,” according to the university.

In Olson’s view, the university said, “novel molecules tailored to specific disease indications could offer substantial benefits and open doors to partnerships with industry by solving many issues currently faced by traditional psychedelics related to safety, scalability and intellectual property.”

“Psychedelics have a unique ability to produce long-lasting changes in the brain that are relevant to treating numerous conditions,” said Olson. “If we can harness those beneficial properties while engineering molecules that are safer and more scalable, we can help a lot of people.”

John A. Gray, an associate professor of the Department of Neurology will act as associate director. Olson and Gray authored a study in 2018 “demonstrating that psychedelics promote neuroplasticity — the growth of new neurons and formation of neural connections,” the university said in the announcement this week.

“Neuronal atrophy is a key factor underlying many diseases, and the ability of psychedelics to promote the growth of neurons and new connections in the brain could have broad therapeutic implications,” Gray said.

The university stated that the institute “will leverage the extraordinary breadth of expertise in the neuroscience community at UC Davis, which includes nearly 300 faculty members in centers, institutes and departments across the Davis and Sacramento campuses,” and that researchers “will be able to work on every aspect of psychedelic science, from molecules and cells through to human clinical trials.”

“Combining the considerable expertise of UC Davis’ pioneering basic research teams, world-class neuroscientists and our nationally recognized medical center is a formula for success that we trust will result in groundbreaking discoveries that will help patients regionally and worldwide,” Susan Murin, dean of the School of Medicine, said in the announcement this week.