The room resembles an unassuming Ikea showroom, with cream-colored walls, a white fur rug and a simple twin-sized bed. Potted plants frame each side of the room with an orange lamp and a bag of blue corn chips atop asymmetric tables.
The only indicator that something is abnormal is the two chairs at the front of the room facing the bed. Indeed, this is no ordinary bedroom. It is the site where patients are given psilocybin — commonly known as magic mushrooms — for research by Emory University’s Center for Psychedelics and Spirituality (ECPS). The chairs are reserved for two therapists to monitor a patient as they undergo a psychedelic experience.
Located in the Emory Brain Health Center, ECPS is the world’s first center that studies psychedelic medicines by integrating psychiatry and spiritual health practices. The center launched in Aug. 2022 under the leadership of co-directors Dr. Boadie Dunlop (01MR, 12G), associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and George Grant (85T), executive director for spiritual health in the Woodruff Health Sciences Center.
“The goal of ECPS is to understand the role that spiritual [and] mystical experiences have in enabling people to benefit from treatment with psychedelic-assisted therapy,” Dunlop said.
ECPS is not the first time Emory faculty has dabbled in psychedelic experiments. In the 1950s, Dr. Carl Pfeiffer, who chaired Emory’s Department of Pharmacology and Chemical Biology at the time, conducted experiments with lysergic acid diethylamide — commonly known as LSD or acid — for the CIA under Project MK-Ultra. Pfeiffer experimented on approximately 80 to 100 prisoners in Atlanta in an effort to study the drug’s effects on behavior control. Additionally, in 2012, Emory researchers filed a psilocybin patent for psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy to treat “social disorders such as autism.” The project was later abandoned and has no association with ECPS, according to Dunlop.
Experts have only recently begun exploring the effect of psychedelic compounds and psychotherapeutics in supporting mental health and substance use disorders — a movement coined the “psychedelic renaissance.” Dunlop believes psychotherapeutic research opens the door for possible treatments and may help with anxiety and substance use disorders, along with other major life stressors.
Goodrich C. White Professor of American Religious History and Cultures Gary Laderman, who is also an ECPS Board member, said that psychedelics are eventually “going to be everywhere,” benefitting pharmaceutical companies and emerging psychedelic-focused therapy.
“They’re a super powerful new, what many would refer to as, a miracle drug,” Laderman said. “And that? That means billions and billions of dollars.”
ECPS’s current clinical trials examine the impact of psilocybin on demoralized cancer patients in palliative care who have depression that doesn’t respond to typical treatment. According to Dunlop, the unique properties of psychedelics could benefit these patients.
“As long as the approach is done within a standard clinical trial framework … it would be a disservice to patients to not pursue this as an area of research,” Dunlop said. “We have very little treatment for people facing end-of-life anxiety, depression, demoralization.”
Though patients may experience increased blood pressure, resurfacing of traumatic memories or a substance use disorder during the trial, Dunlop doesn’t view such symptoms as the biggest risk to psychedelics research. Instead, he is worried about implicitly encouraging recreational use.
“The biggest risk is the effort to legalize the use of the substances in the idea that they are therapeutic in and of themselves, which will lead to use in uncontrolled settings,” Dunlop said. “That was what is associated with bad experiences and potential harms.”
ECPS Research Program Manager Tanja Mletzko added that patients undergo a total of 12 hours of psychotherapy before and after their single dose of psilocybin during the clinical trial.
Some researchers criticize psychedelic research for cultural appropriation and ignoring the Indigenous history behind spirituality and drugs in medicine. Laderman said that though ECPS is still grappling with the “important” questions around appropriation, he applauded ECPS for its inclusion efforts.
“They’re working to think more about diversity integration, the history of what demonstrates another example of … ingrained racism in American society and, in particular, the larger history of drugs,” Laderman said.
According to Dunlop, ECPS regularly meets to vet ideas with working groups, including members from the departments of medicine, psychiatry, spiritual health, nursing, philosophy, religion and others across Emory’s schools. As a result of combining this interdisciplinary expertise, ECPS is writing a paper led by ECPS Director of Research Projects Roman Palitsky. The paper creates a framework for understanding and addressing how psychedelic-assisted therapy may engage spiritual and existential material within patients.
ECPS also is in the process of publishing another paper which develops a “lexicon” for monitoring potential adverse effects of psychedelic-assisted therapy. Dunlop views establishing a framework and common standards — to “operationalize” the mystic experience, as Mletzko put it — as crucial to advancing the field of psychedelic research.
“The key addition we want to make is a way to understand how to characterize decisions made in the wake of an experience like psychedelic-assisted therapy, which gets more to the core of people’s sense of self and meaning,” Dunlop said. “Then, do traditional pharmacological treatments.”
ECPS plans on expanding clinical trials, publishing papers and procuring grant funding, according to Mletzko. They will also hold a day-long, virtual Science on Spiritual Health Symposium on April 1 to discuss spiritual health in medical settings and psychedelics research with international speakers. Mletzko added that she is working on establishing a “rigorous” training program for spiritual health clinicians and therapists to incorporate psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy in their practice.
Laderman said he is looking forward to ECPS’ future because it is “solidly grounded” in the study of religion and health sciences.
“There’s no place like it,” Laderman said. “That is rare, and so this is why something like this is super exciting.”
Executive Editor Matthew Chupack (24C) currently takes a course with Goodrich C. White Professor of American Religious History and Cultures Gary Laderman and was not involved in writing or editing this piece.
Nica Leung (she/her, 26C) is from Portland, Ore., and is majoring in political science and anthropology on the pre-law track. Outside of the Wheel, she can be found inhaling matcha lattes at Kaldi's, playing Neko Atsume, exploring the Emory arts scene or spending time with friends.