WSF19: The Promise of Psychedelics

On Nov. 16, 1938, Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD or “acid,” for the first time while working for Sandoz Laboratories. Although he succeeded, he put his discovery aside. Five years later, while revisiting the experiment, he accidentally absorbed some of it through his fingertips and experienced transcendence. Three days later he intentionally ingested 250 micrograms (0.25 milligrams) and proceeded to ride his bicycle home from his lab accompanied by his laboratory assistant. That day, April 19, is now known by psychedelic enthusiasts as Bicycle Day, or the day that the first acid trip took place.

For the next 25 years, psychedelics were a huge part of psychiatric study in both Europe and the U.S. More often than not, LSD showed positive effects in those who had taken it – one study in the 1950s conducted by psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond showed a 50 percent success rate in a group of recovering alcoholics who had not been able to quit drinking through any other means. However, at some point, the drug escaped the labs and made its way into the hands of not only the general population, but also Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary who, according to author Michael Pollan, became “the LSD evangelist.” Leary ended up being fired from Harvard due to his questionable research and promotion tactics (he was deemed the “most dangerous man in America” by then-president Nixon). Research into psychedelics all but ceased, and the war on drugs all but began.

That is, until fairly recently. Last Thursday night’s World Science Festival event, “Revealing the Mind: The Promise of Psychedelics,” consisted of four panelists discussing the pros – and cons – of psychedelics, which in one form or another have existed since human beings began keeping records. Moderated by Emily Senay, M.D., preventive medicine physician and assistant professor of environmental medicine and public health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, the event opened with an overview of the origins and evolution of psychedelics and how they affect the brain.

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Moderator Emily Senay speaking with the four expert panelists. Photo courtesy of World Science Festival.

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Two Addiction Stories at the Rubin

Addiction, at its most ravenous, wreaks devastation in the brain when searching for dopamine, a chemical that plays a role in reward-motivated behavior.  For some, this means expulsion from several schools, unraveling relationships with family and friends, and struggling amidst homelessness. After ten years of insatiably chasing the next high, this series of events was the reality for a woman just beginning treatment for a substance abuse problem that began when she was a 13-year-old. In rehab, the revelation that addiction is a disease compelled her to consider the existence of a cure—one merely needed to search for it. This search proved to be the fuel in her becoming a behavioral neuroscientist studying the root causes of drug addiction.

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Judith Grisel, Ph.D.

The woman, now an accomplished scientist, is Judith Grisel, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Bucknell University and author of a new book, Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction (Doubleday, 2019). Grisel shared her compelling story, that of her 25 years of research and as a current recovering addict, was part of the Rubin Museum’s Brainwave: Power series, a program featuring discussions between “neuroscientists and notable personalities.”

At “The Power of Addiction,” Grisel spoke candidly with actor Zachary Quinto, known for his role as Spock in the reboot of the Star Trek franchise and more recently on Broadway as Harold in Boys in the Band. The duo shared intimate details of their embroilments with addiction (Quinto is also a recovering addict) and what the healing process entailed for them. Continue reading

National Drug and Alcohol Facts Week: Jan. 22-27

Today marks the beginning of 2019’s National Drug and Alcohol Facts Week, a health observance first launched by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) in 2010. In 2016, the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism became a partner, adding alcohol as a topic area for the week. Geared towards teens, the initiative helps educate people on what science has taught us about drug addiction and alcohol. It also attempts to debunk myths that teens–and adults–may believe about certain substances due to various influences such as social media, peers, music, movies, and TV shows.

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New High School Neuroscience Curriculum

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Image: Shutterstock

A neuroscience curriculum for high school students has found a home on The Franklin Institute’s new website dedicated to the brain. Educators looking to generate excitement about brain science with an eye towards the field’s societal implications can now access the expertly reviewed—and free—resource.

The curriculum, developed jointly by the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Neuroscience & Society and The Franklin Institute, is a cohesive blueprint of instructional material designed around teenagers’ everyday decisions as they enter adulthood. The website describes the units as roughly two-week-long sections that can be offered as a semester-long course or as stand-alone components that can be incorporated into existing courses. Continue reading

Nerd Nite Returns to NYC

caveat logo.JPGThe good folks over at Caveat, New York City’s lounge for “intelligent nightlife,” have once again managed to provide knowledge-seekers an evening of fun and discovery through stimulating presentations, this time under the Nerd Nite banner, hosted by Matt Wasowski.

As the organization’s curator and self-proclaimed “Big Boss” Wasowski was quick to describe Nerd Nite as “the Discovery Channel with beer”—an accurate analogy for their cross-discipline presentations that take place in bars in over 100 cities around the world. The performance at Caveat included three presentations for the evening.

Each speaker brought with them a different topic and different flow to the evening, some more humorous and some more solemn. Brice Particelli, Ph.D., and Chris Cummins both provided amusing, food-for-thought talks on stage, discussing how creationists successfully use genre to promote “alternative” facts and trying to untangle exactly how the cultural marvel of “The Fonz” came to pass.

In a presentation with more gravitas, guest speaker Jay Stahl-Herz, M.D., a forensic pathologist and medical examiner, offered the audience a sobering look at the opioid epidemic currently ravaging America, using an informative and (at times) devastating presentation to elaborate on the drug overdose crisis. Continue reading

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