For more than three decades, UCLA’s Dr. Charles Grob has engaged in research that is guaranteed to make him a hit at cocktail parties, if not always among gatherings of traditional funders of scientific studies.
“This was always an obscure, niche area,” Grob said of his scientific explorations of the therapeutic value of psilocybin, an active chemical in magic mushrooms; MDMA, the party drug better known as ecstasy or molly; and ayahuasca, the Amazonian plant hallucinogen employed as a religious sacrament by indigenous cultures for centuries. “For the most part, the field consisted of myself and a few friends. What we’re seeing now is astonishing.”
Grob, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Harbor–UCLA Medical Center and a member of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, is referring to the growing embrace of drugs long associated with the counterculture and which are, for the most part, still illegal outside of tightly controlled research settings.
Interest in studying psychedelics for mood disorders, addictions and other difficult-to-treat conditions has soared in recent years amid tantalizing hints of their transformative capabilities, particularly when combined with psychotherapy. Even the National Institutes of Health has joined for-profit and philanthropic enterprises in beginning to fund studies of psychedelic treatments. And some of the world’s most prestigious universities have launched research programs — including UCLA, where the Semel Institute’s UCLA Psychedelic Studies Initiative will bring to bear the expertise of faculty from across the campus.
Grob’s work, which has contributed seminal findings that demonstrate significant improvement in mood and quality of life among patients with advanced-stage medical illnesses following psychedelic treatment, underpins much of this current research.
“For many patients, these drugs appear to function as existential medicine, facilitating a renewed sense of purpose and meaning,” he said. “Individuals come out less fearful of death, less isolated and withdrawn, and they are more engaged with family and friends.”