Roland Griffiths Lights the Path For Psychedelic Research
Roland Griffiths, whose groundbreaking studies on psilocybin opened a new era of research into psychedelics, is once again shaping the future of scientific exploration into the nature of consciousness. In response to an unexpected encounter with his own mortality, Griffiths has launched The Roland R. Griffiths, Ph.D. Professorship Fund in Psychedelic Research on Secular Spirituality and Well-Being to serve as his legacy and light the way for future generations of investigators.
The fund will support an endowed professorship at Johns Hopkins University and provide for a program of empirical research with psychedelic substances. Much of the current psychedelic research, largely financed by investors, focuses on medical therapies. This endowment will provide the first sustained support for scientific investigations into the spiritual elements of psychedelics and how they impact prosocial behavior. The funding is intended to be managed in perpetuity as long as Johns Hopkins exists as an institution.
To date the fund has received about $16.5 million of its $20 million dollar goal pledged from hundreds of donors, including well-known philanthropists such as Alexandra Cohen, president of the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation, and the author Tim Ferriss.
“Most gratifying to me is that this endowment will focus on the research I am most passionate about – that being the rigorous psychedelic research on life transformative experiences in the service of human flourishing,” said Griffiths. As there are now thousands of new psychedelic candidate compounds presently being synthesized, Griffiths believes scientists will have abundant opportunities to ask important questions about the possible impact of psychedelics on our spiritual lives.
The professorship and research program was conceived as Griffiths was re-writing his will after receiving an unexpected diagnosis of stage 4 metastatic colon cancer during a routine colonoscopy in November 2022. This “enlivening adventure” as Griffiths describes it, prompted him to realize that what he most wanted to bequeath was a deeper understanding into the nature of human awakening.
“Where I sit as a scientist is that psychedelics are the most powerful tool we have in the scientific toolbox to understand awakening experiences,” says Griffiths who is a professor of neuroscience, psychiatry, and behavioral science, and founding director of the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “What the endowment will do is provide complete funding for the salary of a well-established scientist who understands psychedelics and who has a deep interest in life-transformative awakening experiences.”
The inaugural recipient of the professorship is David Yaden, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine working in the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research. Yaden has just published a new book, The Varieties of Spiritual Experience, which is a scholarly update of the classic William James text, The Varieties of Religious Experience, written more than a century ago.
Yaden says that while research on the therapeutic potential of psychedelics has significantly progressed, he believes that it’s also vitally important to advance Griffiths’ pioneering investigations.
“Remember that Roland’s early psychedelic research was on non-clinical samples and was primarily focused on acute subjective effects, the meaning of experience, and persisting well-being effects,” says Yaden. “While I think research exploring the risks and therapeutic potential of psychedelics is the priority, I also think it’s imperative that research on the meaning, spiritual significance, and well-being effects of psychedelic experiences continue.”
Psychedelic Renaissance Man
Griffiths notes that establishing an enduring endowment of this size was an “admittedly audacious aspiration,” but determined that he had enough good will in his community to reach for his vision. Griffith’s standing as a respected researcher and his personal story of self-discovery has offered him unique insights for shaping these inquiries.
Griffiths says he first encountered psychedelics in college after ingesting what he assumed to be a modest dose of LSD under suboptimal conditions. His interest in the nature of consciousness was more fully engaged twenty-five years ago when he began a meditation practice based on Siddha Yoga. Deeply curious about his emerging meditation experiences and somewhat disenchanted as an academic scientist doing psychopharmacology research, Griffiths seriously contemplated leaving Johns Hopkins for an ashram.
After choosing to continue as a professor and psychopharmacologist at Johns Hopkins, Griffiths says an auspicious meeting with Bob Jesse “prompted the idea of studying psychedelics as an empirical approach to the investigation of mind.” Jesse, a convenor of the Council of Spiritual Practices, introduced Griffiths to clinical psychologist Bill Richards who had conducted psychedelic research with psychiatrist Stan Grof and others until these investigations were shut down in response to the use of psychedelics in the 1960’s.
Griffiths, Richards, Jesse, and Una McCann collaborated on a now historic 2006 study investigating the impact of psilocybin in healthy psychedelic-naive participants. It sought to evaluate the longer-term psychological effects of a high dose of psilocybin in supportive conditions relative to a comparison compound – a high dose of Ritalin.
Closely scrutinized by both the FDA and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Griffiths says there was no certainty that the study would be approved because psychedelics were then considered taboo. After an unusually close review by the dean of the medical school and the university’s managing attorney, Griffiths says Johns Hopkins prioritized “advancing science over potential political considerations” and permitted the researchers to move forward.
When the study was launched, Griffiths had already conducted hundreds of studies with different mood altering compounds. He says that Richards’ clinical experience was an ideal complement to his scientific expertise designing trials that involved giving high doses of drugs to both experienced and inexperienced volunteers and assessing the effects with questionnaires and behavioral measures.
“To conduct such studies rigorously, we need controlled conditions, and we need to pay very close attention to the instruction set and to select sensitive and valid outcome measures,” says Griffiths. “So I brought everything I knew in from clinical behavioral pharmacology to bear on how we might go about assessing a high dose of psilocybin.”
The Core Finding
The groundbreaking paper produced from the 2006 study “Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance” was a turning point in scientific research into psychedelics. The findings showed that these experiences were similar to those described by James at the turn of the century and later documented by Walter Pahnke in the early 1960’s in his famous Good Friday experiment. Such encounters had also been documented by Ralph Hood, a scholar in the psychology of religion.
Griffiths believes that mystical experiences can fundamentally alter a person’s world view and are characterized by three principal components. The first is a sense that everything is interconnected, and the second is that the experience is precious, or in religious terminology sacred. The third element is that the experience is absolutely true or more real than everyday waking consciousness.
What surprised Griffiths most about the 2006 study was the persistence of the positive changes reported by the subjects. “Weeks, months, years after having their experience our volunteers were attributing enduring, fundamental, and positive changes to that psilocybin experience,” says Griffiths. “It was completely different from the many other psychoactive drugs that I have studied.”
When a person’s fundamental sense of self and worldview is changed in this way, Griffiths believes that they will then make different choices both in the present and the future. He likens it to reprogramming a computer with a new operating system. “You have done something that really changes how people make decisions and hold themselves in the world,” he says.
While recognizing that psilocybin had the potential to make a lasting shift in people’s interior worlds, Griffiths was also intrigued by the potential for this expanded awareness to impact social systems.
“I think an important aspect of this is that it has a strong prosocial ethical element – we really need to have deep compassion for others, because they are no different from us. It’s really the Golden Rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s about mutual caretaking,” says Griffiths. “As highly evolved social beings this is crucial to our survival and relevant to understandings of ethics and morality. And so that’s why I think this prosocial aspect is a core finding – a finding I remain most interested in.”
A decade after the pivotal psilocybin study, Griffiths and his fellow scientists once again changed the destiny of psychedelic research. They conducted a pioneering therapeutic clinical study in cancer patients who were depressed and anxious due to a life threatening cancer diagnosis. Some prior psychedelic research with cancer patients had taken place during the 1960’s and 1970’s, in addition to a 2010 pilot study by Charles Grob, Alicia Danforth and other researchers at UCLA.
As Griffiths and his team pursued their clinical study of cancer patients, New York University conducted a parallel investigation and both were published in 2016. The studies showed that a single administration of psilocybin under supported conditions produced large and immediate reductions in depression and anxiety that endured through a six-month followup. The NYU researchers interviewed subjects five years later and showed that the therapeutic effects were sustained.
“That finding was unprecedented in treatment of serious psychiatric disorders,” says Griffiths. He notes that the study immediately drew at least two major companies, Compass Pathways and Usona Institute to seek FDA approval for the medical use of psilocybin initially for end of life depression and anxiety and later for major depressive disorder. In the ensuing years, Griffiths notes that there has been a sea change in the development of psychedelics for the treatment of a wide variety of conditions. Hundreds of startup companies focused on psychedelic research have attracted more than $3 billion in investment to explore therapeutic benefits and sparked a debate about essential values.
“Inevitably, however, our economic system is driven by prospects of future profits. So there is a gold rush among companies trying to patent intellectual property and to corner different parts of the market,” says Griffiths. “To some, these developments appear exploitative and contrary to the prosocial effects of psychedelics.”
While the 2016 therapeutic trial helped create a new commercial market and prompted the NIH and other federal agencies to explore supporting psychedelic research, Griffiths says the largest impact of these investigations is the public perception of psychedelics.
“Stepping back, I think the most impactful aspect of our early therapeutic trials is that they were scientifically rigorous, which has permitted much broader cultural acceptance,” says Griffiths. “I think this has been fundamentally important.”
Cautions and Concerns
As psychedelics continue to be more widely embraced by mainstream culture, Griffiths says he remains concerned that high doses of a psychedelic could precipitate enduring psychotic reactions such as schizophrenia. While case reports have persuaded him that concern is warranted, he notes that there are no controlled trials demonstrating such effects in part due to ethical issues. There also appear to be risks of psychedelic occasioned manic states or engaging in dangerous behavior that could harm oneself or others, says Griffiths. He adds that while infrequent, psychedelic-induced confusional states, panic reactions, and paranoid responses can also result in injury, death or even suicide.
“Unfortunately, in the enthusiasm and excitement over the incredible opportunities for experiences that are life changing, sometimes the real risks are downplayed in a way that raises concern for me,” says Griffiths. “Another type of concern is that if psychedelics are developed uniquely and solely within the medical community, they are not going to be available for as wide a set of applications and to as diverse a population as many would think would be ideal.”
The risk of the over medicalization of psychedelics restricting access is partly driven by the structure of the medical system and the potential for inflated costs of patented medicine delivery services, says Griffiths. While sympathetic to these concerns, Griffiths says he has chosen to focus on medical approval of psychedelic therapies because they include regulatory structures for Schedule 1 compounds with a potential risk profile.
“Once approved for medical use, there will be numerous opportunities to extend to non-medical conditions in which these compounds can be given safely under structured and supportive conditions,” says Griffiths.
The Forward Edge of Research
Griffiths says he is especially curious about the cultural implications of transformative psychedelic experiences that can shift moral principles. He believes there needs to be more scientific understanding of the causes and consequences of spiritual awakenings that give rise to prosocial impulses that could play a critical role in human resilience and survival.
Griffiths notes that scientists at Johns Hopkins and New York University have just completed a joint study in this area that involves members of the clergy. While researchers have agreed not to discuss findings until they are published, he says the results align with those from prior studies with psychedelics involving healthy populations.
“We need to develop cultural institutions that can wisely support experiences of this sort along with the enduring positive changes that can follow,” says Griffiths. “Then we may have the basis for changing not only local culture but culture worldwide. And we are going to need to do this if we are going to survive as a species because we face so many existential threats – think nuclear or biological weapons or artificial intelligence risks. Thus, understanding this prosocial impulse is as important as anything I know or can imagine because of the larger cultural implication.”
Yaden notes that while some people experience fear and anxiety during encounters with psychedelics, participants in research studies often report overwhelming feelings of love and compassion for themselves and others. Some studies reveal that self-reported increases in prosocial behaviors are supported by the observations of other people in the participant’s life.
“The relationship between psychedelic experience and prosocial attitudes is an important area for future study. The question of how psychedelic experiences often result in prosocial attitudes is unknown,” says Yaden. “It’s also interesting to consider ways in which this impulse could go awry, such as susceptibility to manipulation. But I think one of the biggest questions is: if psychedelic experiences do reliably result in prosocial attitudes, does that result in actual prosocial action?”
One of the compelling directions for future research funded by the endowment is investigating the potential role of psychedelics in life transitions, says Grifitths. He says he can imagine psychedelic-facilitated initiation experiences to mark the transition into adulthood, the departure for college, the start of a career, marriage, parenthood, retirement, and the end of life.
Psychedelic experiences often bring up existential questions that seem uniquely well suited to the contemplation of death and dying and the deep mystery of consciousness, says Griffiths. “Our research and recent research by others suggest powerfully healing opportunities. If such use were adopted by the larger culture, it wouldn’t take very many generations for virtually everyone to become familiar with the potential benefits to loved ones, possibly resulting in changing the entire culture’s attitude towards these substances.”
While his cancer diagnosis felt at times like a bad dream and treatments have been physiologically challenging, Griffiths says his meditation practice and experiences with psychedelics have allowed him to approach his own death with a deep sense of gratitude for the mystery of existence and the preciousness of life. He says he has subsequently taken one significant dose of LSD to “stress test” his sense of equipoise and ask if there were unknown fears or emotions he was denying. He reports that the experience was informative and validating. While Griffiths says he doesn’t feel the need to revisit psychedelics, he has not ruled out the possibility.
“There was no trace of fear or anxiety, but there was something exquisitely beautiful, uplifting, and deeply meaningful about the process,” says Grifitths. “Further, I had a strong sense that how I was experiencing and talking about the process was completely authentic and it would be of value for me to communicate to others about my experience.”
Griffiths is moved by the support that the fund is receiving from a wide range of donors. He says it touches him deeply that so many people are stepping forward to help understand awakening and promote human well being. Although the professorship is in his name, Griffiths feels strongly that the project is much larger than himself and says he is grateful if people grasp the magnitude of the vision.
“At the personal level, what is more important than a much deeper understanding of who we are as these evolved conscious creatures?,” says Griffiths. “It is the most fundamental and basic question that I think we can ask of ourselves: What the hell is going on here? How am I gifted with this opportunity to be awake, alive in this experience of sentience, of consciousness?”
“Scientifically, we are nowhere near addressing this question. I wonder if it’s ever going to be known. But that’s the excitement I have for the endowed research project – it is going to use the power of the scientific method to address this very topic in the service of human flourishing.”
Image: Nicki Adams using an adapted photo from the Griffiths Fund