Neuroscape, a translational neuroscience center at University of California San Francisco (UCSF) that develops tools to assess and optimize brain function, is launching a psychedelics research division. The researchers are supported by $6.4 million in private funding and led by Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, who founded the first psychedelic research center at Imperial College London in 2019.
Neuroscape uses technology, brain scans and experiential treatments to understand and improve how the brain works, says Dr. Adam Gazzaley, Neuroscape founder and executive director.
“When we implement these experiential treatments, we sometimes use mobile devices. We also experiment with new technologies like virtual reality and augmented reality,” says Gazzaley. “These interactive experiential treatments are often very fun and engaging, and we often present them as video games.”
Neuroscape has developed multiple video games to study and improve cognition. Gazzaley co-founded Akili Interactive Labs Inc., which developed EndeavorRx, the only video game with FDA approval as a treatment for ADHD.
Therapeutic video games and psychedelics might seem like odd academic bedfellows, but Gazzaley says it’s all about the experience.
Video games are like a pill or syringe, the vehicle of the treatment, which is an exterior experience that leads to cognitive experience, says Gazzaley. He describes the games at Neuroscape as closed loop experiences, where the presentation of the game is guided by real time data of the individual playing.
Gazzaley seeks to explore the experiential aspect of psychedelic treatment that considers the setting of therapies as well as the cognitive response to treatment, and hopefully create treatments that can be highly individualized.
“The closed loop psychedelic experience is what we have our sights on,” he says.
Neuroscape’s psychedelics division joins the Translational Psychedelic Research (TrPR) Program at UCSF. The two investigative teams aren’t connected other than being based at UCSF, but Neuroscape will be a collaborative group, says Gazzaley. Research teams within USCF, as well as UC Berkeley, Stanford, NYU and John Hopkins, are all potential partners.
“Our job is to be collaborative. There is more work than any single group can accomplish,” says Gazzaley. “The more high level research groups that start, the better.”
Gazzaley says he first met Carhart-Harris a couple of years ago, and they both realized there was a lot they could do together with the existing tools of psychedelic research. “We think very similarly, and we both see the need to advance this particular aspect of the research field. His leadership of this new division is going to be really groundbreaking,” says Gazzaley.
As well as leading the new division, Carhart-Harris is the newly endowed Ralph Metzner Distinguished Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at UCSF.
“The founding of this new division is a hugely exciting development in the story of the psychedelic renaissance,” Carhart-Harris said in a press release. “I’m delighted to be joining UCSF and the Neuroscape team and hope to steer this new division to great success.”
Carhart-Harris came to UCSF from Imperial College London,where he founded the Centre for Psychedelic Research in 2019, which was the first of its kind.
Recently at Imperial College, Carhart-Harris designed a phase 2 trial comparing the effectiveness of psilocybin and escitalopram, a prescription selective serotonin-reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), as antidepressant treatments. The trial looked at 59 patients with moderate-to-severe major depressive disorder. Thirty patients were in the psilocybin group and 29 were in the escitalopram group.
After six weeks, patients were scored with a 16-item Quick Inventory of Depressive Symptomatology Self-Report (QIDS-SR-16). The study found no significant difference in antidepressant effects between psilocybin and escitalopram in the groups. The sample size was small, but the trial suggests that psilocybin might possibly be as effective as an SSRI and should be tested in larger studies.
Neuroscape’s first study is a Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) phase 3 trial for MDMA as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. Neuroscape has already been involved in the trial through Dr. Jennifer Mitchell, who is part of the Neuroscape team, says Gazzaley.
“We’ve been creating the laboratories, getting the licenses,” he says. “The system is in place. We’re just expanding it within Neuroscape now.”
The Neuroscape team will pay particular attention to how context and setting shape the results of participants, with a particular emphasis on well-being and cognition.
“We will study the individual [participants] psychological and neurological response to psilocybin, ideally in real time, in some sense map out the experience as it unfolds,” says Gazzaley. “The other component is to help guide that experience by changing elements in the sensory environment. Not just music, which will be a part of it, but also visual information and scent. From an experiential perspective, it will be a recording of the experience, and then adjusting the visual and audio and olfactory stimuli to see how we can guide it.”
The personalized, experiential approach to psychedelics is accepted in the indigenous and therapeutic worlds, but it doesn’t yet have a foothold in the academic world, says Gazzaley. That’s exactly why he thinks Neuroscape has attracted so much attention already.
The psychedelics research division has received $6.4 million in unrestricted funding from private donors. George Goldsmith and Dr. Ekaterina Malievskaia, co-founders of biotech company Compass Pathways PLC (NASDAQ:CMPS), donated $4 million for the Ralph Metzner Distinguished Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry endowment.
Malievskaia said in an email that she and Goldsmith wanted to establish a permanent endowed professorship dedicated to psychedelic research that bridged neurology and psychiatry.
“We chose to do this because of the track record of innovation at UCSF and Neuroscape,” says Malievskaia. “By providing funding to secure this leadership position, we reduce some of the fundraising burden, enabling each of its recipients over time to focus on advancing the field rather than on searching for the next source of their funding.”
“We wanted to create a position in honor of the late Ralph Metzner,” she adds, “a pioneering psychedelic researcher and therapist who was part of the initial psychedelic research team at Harvard in the 1960s, and is a much missed friend and mentor.”
Melievskaia says Carhart-Harris is one of the leading psychedelic scientists of this generation, and it’s no surprise that he was chosen to lead the new division at Neuroscape.
“We see many commonalities between [Carhart-Harris] and [Gazzaley]: their interest in set and setting, their perspective on therapeutic potential and human thriving beyond the clinical framework, skillful use of observational and ethnographic data, and personal qualities of curiosity, creative thinking and inclusiveness,” says Melievskaia. “Both are true pioneers, and we are delighted that [Carhart-Harris] will be the first recipient of this professorship.”
Other donors to Neuroscape’s psychedelic division include Dominic van Almsick, Drew and Amy McKnight, Tim Ferriss, and the George Sarlo Foundation. Neuroscape continues to seek funding for upcoming studies.
“We have enough to start, but we have a really ambitious vision for what this could be in all of its comprehensiveness,” says Gazzaley. “We’re working on funding for a new facility as part of Neuroscape’s new labs, a new type of lab that integrates technology but in a comfortable, natural way, which is obviously important during treatments. That’s the next step.”