University of Iowa researchers study the use of psychedelic drugs in medicine

Researchers at the UI Department of Psychiatry are working to conduct a study to figure out if Ketamine and Psilocybin, both a form of psychedelics, will be able to treat alcohol abuse disorder. The group is aiming to conduct this study this summer.


Hayden Froehlich

Department of Psychiatry Chair and DEO Dr. Peggy Nopoulos poses for a photo in her office in the Pappajohn Pavilion on Thursday, December 12, 2019. Dr. Nopoulos is conducting research on the neurological disease Huntington’s.

Natalie Miller, News Reporter

Researchers at the University of Iowa are reevaluating the use of psychedelic drugs as a treatment for alcohol use disorder in a pilot study.

UI Department of Psychiatry Chair Peggy Nopoulos is studying psychedelic therapy to treat alcohol use disorder. Some participants of the study will receive doses of psilocybin, often known as magic mushrooms, and ketamine.

The researchers began discussing the idea of a psychedelic study in early 2022. A study like this takes time because the researchers must be permitted to work with the drugs in a lab setting.

Psychedelic therapy in a controlled environment allows for the brain to get out of a bad circuit or routine, whether it’s excessive alcohol consumption or depressive moods. Nopoulos said treatment with psychedelic drugs allows other circuits of the brain to take over.

“Oftentimes, if you are sick, whether it’s depression or whether it’s addiction, that internal brain circuit is abnormal, and oftentimes it’s what we call hyper-connected, meaning that once you turn to that internal brain state, your illness really takes over,” Nopoulos said.

The UI study will be conducted as a head-to-head comparison of ketamine and psilocybin, Mark Niciu, an assistant professor at the UI’s Department of Psychiatry and the Iowa Neuroscience Institute, said.

Nopoulos said the study will be conducted by administering the psychedelics to a group of men who suffer from alcohol use disorder. Half will receive psilocybin, and the other half will receive ketamine. Neither the researchers nor the subjects will know which one they will receive.

Subjects will start by having an MRI scan and a meeting with a therapist. They will then come in to be administered their dosage and will receive another MRI scan after that. Researchers then evaluate the subjects over time and will receive one last MRI scan three months after the drug was administered.

Lead therapist for the study and licensed psychologist Candida Maurer said there is a two-hour meeting with a licensed psychologist before the administration of the medicine.

“During that time I will be taking a history … So I’ll be taking history trying to get an idea of when this started, maybe why it started, and what their intentions are at this point in their life,” Maurer said.

Maurer will be using a mixture of body therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, meditation, relaxation, inner-child work, and mind-body therapy.

 “If you can help the person access the part of their body that is in pain, you can help them release the trauma through that work … That’s the kind of work I will be doing,” Maurer said.

Nopoulos explained two common types of classic psychedelics: Lysergic acid diethylamide — also known as LSD — and psilocybin.

“Both are drugs that have an effect on the brain, which creates a specific kind of experience, and a psychedelic trip,” she said.

Psychedelic drugs have been stigmatized. Nopoulos said researchers made large strides in psychedelic research in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but after the passage of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970, which made psychedelics illegal, all the advances vanished.

“There were concerns by the government that they were causing too much unrest societally,” Nopoulos said. “I said it was very political because, scientifically, they were making pretty great strides, so politically shutting them down made all the science go away for several decades.”

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Nopoulos has been studying psychedelic drugs for 20 years, and the research has been slowly building back up. He said each person might experience a different kind of psychedelic trip based on the aspects of their lives.

“It really is a major change in the way your brain is perceiving its environment, how it thinks, how you feel about yourself and the universe,” Nopoulos said. “Many people might consider it a spiritual kind of experience. It depends on who you are, and your belief system.”

This study excites Niciu, as it will be the first study of its kind at the UI.

“There’s really a great need for better treatments for alcohol use disorder … at least medication-based treatments with several FDA approved medications, but even so many patients don’t have adequate response to that,” Niciu said.  “It’s all about providing relief from mental health disorders.”