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Pioneering research

In the last decade, a number of research groups in Europe and the Americas have conducted studies into the safety and effectiveness of psychedelics for conditions such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but the Imperial Centre for Psychedelic Research is the first to gain this level of stature within a major academic institution.

When delivered safely and professionally, psychedelic therapy holds a great deal of promise for treating some very serious mental health conditions.

Dr Robin Carhart-Harris

Head of the Centre for Psychedelic Research

Ours was the first Centre in the world to investigate the brain effects of LSD using modern brain imaging and the first to study psilocybin – the active compound in magic mushrooms – for treating severe depression. These studies have laid the groundwork for larger trials that are now taking place around the world. Other pioneering work from the group includes breakthrough neuroimaging research with psilocybin, MDMA and DMT (the psychoactive compounds found in ecstasy and ayahuasca respectively).

Earlier this year the group began a new trial directly comparing psilocybin therapy with a conventional antidepressant drug in patients with depression – a study for which they are still recruiting volunteers. Building on this, they also plan to begin another new trial next year to explore the safety and feasibility of psilocybin for treating patients with anorexia.

Dr Carhart-Harris adds: “It may take a few years for psychedelic therapy to be available for patients, but research so far has been very encouraging. Early stage clinical research has shown that when delivered safely and professionally, psychedelic therapy holds a great deal of promise for treating some very serious mental health conditions and may one day offer new hope to vulnerable people with limited treatment options.”


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Research publications

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  • Journal article
    Carhart-Harris RL, Nutt D, 2017,

    Serotonin and brain function: a tale of two receptors

    , Journal of Psychopharmacology, Vol: 31, Pages: 1091-1120, ISSN: 1461-7285

    Previous attempts to identify a unified theory of brain serotonin function have largely failed to achieve consensus. In this present synthesis, we integrate previous perspectives with new and older data to create a novel bipartite model centred on the view that serotonin neurotransmission enhances two distinct adaptive responses to adversity, mediated in large part by its two most prevalent and researched brain receptors: the 5-HT1A and 5-HT2A receptors. We propose that passive coping (i.e. tolerating a source of stress) is mediated by postsynaptic 5-HT1AR signalling and characterised by stress moderation. Conversely, we argue that active coping (i.e. actively addressing a source of stress) is mediated by 5-HT2AR signalling and characterised by enhanced plasticity (defined as capacity for change). We propose that 5-HT1AR-mediated stress moderation may be the brain’s default response to adversity but that an improved ability to change one’s situation and/or relationship to it via 5-HT2AR-mediated plasticity may also be important – and increasingly so as the level of adversity reaches a critical point. We propose that the 5HT1AR pathway is enhanced by conventional 5-HT reuptake blocking antidepressants such as the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), whereas the 5-HT2AR pathway is enhanced by 5-HT2AR-agonist psychedelics. This bipartite model purports to explain how different drugs (SSRIs and psychedelics) that modulate the serotonergic system in different ways, can achieve complementary adaptive and potentially therapeutic outcomes.

  • Journal article
    Carhart-Harris R, Lawton G, 2017,

    Trip advisor

    , NEW SCIENTIST, Vol: 235, Pages: 42-43, ISSN: 0262-4079
  • Journal article
    Erritzoe D, Nutt DJ, Carhart-Harris R, 2017,

    Concerns regarding conclusions made about LSD-treatments

    , HISTORY OF PSYCHIATRY, Vol: 28, Pages: 257-258, ISSN: 0957-154X
  • Journal article
    Carhart-Harris RL, Goodwin GM, 2017,

    The therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs: past, present and future

    , Neuropsychopharmacology, Vol: 42, Pages: 2105-2113, ISSN: 1740-634X

    Plant-based psychedelics, such as psilocybin, have an ancient history of medicinal use. After the first English language report on LSD in 1950, psychedelics enjoyed a short-lived relationship with psychology and psychiatry. Used most notably as aids to psychotherapy for the treatment of mood disorders and alcohol dependence, drugs such as LSD showed initial therapeutic promise before prohibitive legislature in the mid-1960s effectively ended all major psychedelic research programs. Since the early 1990s, there has been a steady revival of human psychedelic research: last year saw reports on the first modern brain imaging study with LSD and three separate clinical trials of psilocybin for depressive symptoms. In this circumspective piece, RLC-H and GMG share their opinions on the promises and pitfalls of renewed psychedelic research, with a focus on the development of psilocybin as a treatment for depression.

  • Journal article
    Nour MM, Evans L, Carhart-Harris RL, 2017,

    Psychedelics, Personality and Political Perspectives

    , JOURNAL OF PSYCHOACTIVE DRUGS, Vol: 49, Pages: 182-191, ISSN: 0279-1072

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