Taking a new look at psychedelics: Q&A with Roland Griffiths

At TEDMED 2015, psychopharmacology researcher Roland Griffiths shared intriguing research findings about psilocybin, a naturally occurring psychedelic substance that has been used for hundreds of years within some cultures for medical, healing, and religious purposes. We reached out to Roland with some questions about his current research.

We’re especially curious about your research into the connections between psilocybin, spirituality, and consciousness. Can you tell us more? Are there any updates?

_JHU9762 RRG office copy_FotorIn ongoing studies, we’re examining the effects of psilocybin in long-term meditators and in religious leaders from the major faith traditions. We’re also conducting two anonymous internet surveys. One is asking about experiences that some people report of an encounter with God, or the God of their understanding. Another is examining anomalous experiences, such as Near Death Experiences, that produce enduring changes in people’s attitudes and beliefs about death and dying. In both surveys, we want to compare spontaneously occurring experiences with psychedelically occasioned ones. Our hope is that these surveys will allow us to better understand such experiences and how they may differ across faith traditions and occasioning events (e.g. prayer, meditation, spontaneously-occurring, nature experiences, drug-occasioned, etc.).

Our research has shown that a single experience with psilocybin can produce personally meaningful experiences accompanied by enduring positive changes in attitudes, mood and behavior. We’ve recently completed a study suggesting that psilocybin decreases depression and anxiety associated with a life-threatening cancer diagnosis. We’re also following up on a pilot study that suggested the psilocybin may be helpful in treating drug addictions — in this case, cigarette smoking. Finally, we’re initiating a study to explore the efficacy of psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression. In several of our studies we are using fMRI brain imaging methods to examine the acute and persisting changes in brain function that occur after receiving psilocybin.

You’ve opened our eyes to the potential therapeutic benefits of psilocybin – but do they come with risks?

_JHU9895 cancer pamphlet copy_FotorAlthough most participants in our laboratory studies have positive psilocybin experiences, about 30% experience significant fear or anxiety sometime during the session. Even for that 30%, given our careful screening and support, persisting adverse outcomes are virtually non-existent. It can be a different story for haphazard use in the general population. We recently conducted an internet survey of almost 2000 people who described their single most challenging experiences after taking psilocybin. Almost 40% of respondents rated the experience to be among the five most challenging experiences of their lives (yet, curiously, often among the most meaningful of their lives). Notably, about 10 percent said they had put themselves or others at risk of physical harm during the challenging experience, most likely in response to fear or panic, and about 10% reported enduring adverse psychological symptoms lasting a year or more. The contrast between the survey results and the excellent safety track record of the laboratory studies underscores the need for careful screening, preparation, and support.

Why study mystical experiences? What does this work mean to you?

Many of the challenges facing the world today, such as the environmental crisis and hostilities within and between cultures, stem from a lack of appreciation for the profound interconnectedness of all people and all things. This sense of interconnectedness or unity is a core feature of the world’s ethical and moral systems. Our interconnectedness is also a core feature of the mystical or transcendent experiences that occur with high probability after the ingestion of psilocybin under appropriate conditions. Ultimately, systematic prospective study of mystical experiences and their consequences may be critical to the survival of our species and the healing of our planet.

Is there a thought or mantra that you repeat to yourself most often?

I try continually to cultivate deep gratitude for the astonishing mystery of consciousness — that we are aware that we are aware — giving rise in me to uplifting and sacred feelings of wonder about all that we do not and quite possibly can never know.

Watch Roland’s TEDMED 2015 talk, “The science of psilocybin and its use to relieve suffering,” here. 

 

Imagining a culture of healthier childhood

TEDMED speaker and pediatric endocrinologist Louise Greenspan has been a co-investigator in a uniquely comprehensive longitudinal North American study following young girls through puberty. We asked her to design a fantasy health intervention with unlimited resources. Here’s her vision:

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

We all know the expression, ”It takes a village to raise a child.” My fantasy intervention is based on that concept, however it expands on what the village is and what it provides. Today’s industrialized societies have fractured the extended family, resulting in most parents not having support from their own elders in raising their children. Many young parents don’t have the basic knowledge they need to support their growing families in healthy ways. While concepts about child rearing naturally change between generations, there is still a lot to be learned from those who have gone before us.

I’d love to support an intervention that provides education and assistance to families beginning from the moment they find out they are pregnant. The idea would be to start with pregnant mothers, by providing nutritional education and enhanced psychological and educational support, regardless of socioeconomic status. This education would take place in classes with members of the neighborhood who are also pregnant, thus building community.

After delivery, new parents would be encouraged to breastfeed and learn how to nurture their babies by visiting health workers who could come into the home. As the children grow, these home health workers would provide assistance and education to parents on how to feed their children, how to support their developing brains, and also how to discipline them. This way, parents could learn the facts they need to know, as well as start to develop a healthy authoritative approach to setting limits with their children. These trained workers would be available for parents to turn to for advice, to supplement the way some of us were once able to turn to our mothers and grandmothers for advice (but with the latest in knowledge and skills). The health workers would also set up support groups for families who live near each other or hold groups and classes as well.

At age 3, all children would be offered high quality preschool with a healthy lunch provided for all, and the parental support and education could continue, informed by these community schools. Parents would learn how to deal effectively with the challenges presented by their ‘threenagers’ and other toddler challenges. At entry to elementary school, the support and education would be augmented so that it would also be provided directly to the children themselves while also continuing with their families. All kids would have weekly lessons in cooking and healthy eating, and be active participants in growing and preparing healthy food at their school as part of the curriculum. Parents and guardians would participate in sessions about how to feed their children healthfully, assist their children educationally, as well as continue to be given tools about how to effectively parent their children.

Health Education would be taught to the children directly, starting in kindergarten with practical life skills, including cooking. In the early grades, the education might focus on the importance of eating a healthy balanced diet and on getting enough physical activity and sleep. As the children age, lessons would include classes on their body and health, with puberty education starting in third grade, separate from sex education, which could start in sixth grade. In third and fourth grade, children would learn about puberty and the body changes that will start and happen to everyone over the next few years. In middle school, kids would continue to discuss puberty, but would now have discussions about sex and sexuality. In high school, these topics would be discussed in more depth. The lessons learned about cooking, healthy eating, and exercise would continue throughout these years. There would also be age-appropriate mindfulness-based stress-reduction education through all of the grades, with an emphasis on this in high school. Parenting assistance and education throughout these years would reinforce these concepts and would perhaps also focus on how to enforce healthy sleep habits and limitations on screen time. The outcomes examined in this intervention would include rates of childhood obesity, early puberty, and psychological and educational diagnoses issues across the socioeconomic spectrum.

Could an intervention like this help reduce childhood health care disparities? Could it reduce parental stress and anxiety? Might it lead to more teens heading to college, thus reducing educational disparities? It is my dream to be able to study the effects of such a holistic, longitudinal, health education intervention. My hunch is that it could be game-changing.

Louise Greenspan is co-author of the The New Puberty: How to Navigate Early Development in Today’s Girls. Learn more by watching her TEDMED talk, “Weighing the causes of early puberty.”

Overheard at TEDMED: Let’s Dance

Optimized-MichaelPainterThis guest blog post was written by Michael Painter, senior program officer and senior member of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Quality/Equality team.

Most have seen Derek Sivers’ 2010 TED talk, “How to start a movement.” In it a horde of dancers danced. That horde didn’t come out of nowhere of course. It started with a single nutty guy’s idea of a dance. Soon another joined, then more and more. Those two eventually became that dancing horde. Change—even big change—is like that dance. It starts small. An idea moves out of a mind into a conversation. Sometimes a small conversation, even over lunch, turns into a bigger one—a much bigger one.

At TEDMED 2015, TEDMED asked its community to dance about health. They asked each of us: what is your role in building a Culture of Health? Sure, we can agree on an ultimate far-off health goal for the country: everyone would have the hope, the means, and lots of opportunities to lead the healthiest lives possible. There are many (many) ways to get to that future. Some of those ideas can be remarkably different—most of them aren’t easy—but together they will help us create our Culture of Health dance.

TEDMED drove that conversation—that dance—with open-ended questions to spark powerful discussions about the role of health in our lives and communities. More than 800 TEDMED Delegates participated on-site, and over 150 contributed their perspectives online in response to thought-provoking questions like:

  • What is masquerading as health?
  • How can business positively impact society’s health?
  • Name one small shift that would make the biggest impact on health?
  • What is the secret to making health a shared value?

Blog post 4A dance floor is only as rich as its many wild dancers. The TEDMED team captured over 1,000 responses that reflected a range of diverse thoughts and insights from health care professionals, government officials, scientific researchers, entrepreneurs, journalists, bloggers, and more.

Blogpost3These TEDMED dancers pointed to barriers and opportunities that will help us all make health a shared value. For example, many questioned whether we have placed too much trust in technology and the latest health apps and gadgets, instead of focusing on building real-life social connections and trusting human relationships. Conversations also highlighted the importance of addressing social determinants (such as housing, discrimination and economic status), and debated whether the government should try to provide incentives for healthy behavior.

TEDMED saw some emerging themes in the Culture of Health dance, summarized in the attached piece. Take a look. See what you think. Help us keep the conversation going in your communities – both online (using the #CultureofHealth and #TEDMED hashtags) and off. We can absolutely build our healthy future—but only if we dance together. Is your toe tapping yet?

New Genetic Spectra Across Earth’s Cities & Far Beyond

by Chris Mason, guest contributor

Since speaking at TEDMED 2015, there have been a number of updates to the science I described in my talk. These areas include: space genomics, beer-omics, extreme microbiomes, global city metagenome sampling, epitranscriptome discoveries in RNA viruses, and DNA as music in microgravity.

Image based on images courtesy of ShutterstockSpace Genomics and Genomic DJs

First, we have completed the first whole-genome sequencing profile of two astronauts’ genomes (the Kelly Twins). Also, in collaboration with our NASA collaborators, (Aaron Burton and Sarah Castro-Wallace) we have been sequencing DNA in microgravity; this will be used for 2016 plans to send an Oxford Nanopore Sequencer onto the International Space Station with astronaut Kate Rubin. We are preparing for the return of astronaut Scott Kelly to Earth next week, and are strategizing how to make genome-guided medicine a part of the standard of care for new astronauts. Our goal is to monitor, protect, and potentially repair astronauts’ biology through an integrated view of the layers of the genome, transcriptome, proteome, all the epi-omes, and the microbiome.

In collaboration with Harvard Medical School’s Consortium on Space Genetics, we’ve formally launched a new research focus for Weill Cornell medical students on the study of space genetics and aerospace medicine. This allows new medical students to learn and train in the methods of space genomics, data analysis, and new technology development for space missions. They’re also trained in synthetic biology, materials science, nanofabrication, microbiome engineering, and gene drives. These skills are taught in our class called “How to Grow Almost Anything (HTGAA) – NYC” that is part of the BioAcademany. Work by Elizabeth Hénaff in the 2015 class also helped with our plan for the Gowanus Canal and extreme microbiomes.

Extreme Microbiomes

Microbiomes can lead to a bounty of discovery for new biology, drugs and molecules. We have been systematically hunting for these microbes around the world as part of the eXtreme Microbiome Project (XMP). Among those sampled sites, we have already found that Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, a SuperFund site, holds a suite of unique and potentially protective microbes, and we have been designing artificial sponges to hold these in the canal during the remediation process. This is part of a larger project of urban microbiome monitoring and design, called the Brooklyn Bioreactor, which is a collaboration between our laboratory at Weill Cornell, the landscape architecture firm Nelson Byrd Woltz, the Gowanus Conservancy, and the community laboratory Genspace. Lastly, in collaboration with Shawn Levy at HudsonAlpha, we have started collecting data about beer microbiomes, which show an interesting blend of differences depending on the yeast strain used.

Global Metagenome Collection Day

The Metagenomics and MetaDesign of Subways and Urban Biomes Consortium has now reached 43 cities around the world, and a global City Sampling Day (CSD) event is planned for June 21, 2016, to match the collections of the global Ocean Sampling Day (OSD) group. These seasonal molecular snapshots will begin to expand our search for novel microbiomes, new molecules, will aid us in mapping the distribution of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) markers, and enable a better understanding of urban biology and ecosystems.

Epitranscriptome Discoveries and Sounds of RNA

Last but not least, we have just published the first demonstration of another realm of RNA modifications, collectively called the “epitranscriptome.” Specifically, we show that HIV’s RNA genomes also harbor modified RNA bases, and they impact how infectious the virus may be for a patient. We are now on a search across all RNA viruses to see how common these types of modifications are. We are also working to get direct RNA sequencing in nanopores operational, to enable listening to the “music” of the genome as it moves through the pore, as we demonstrated was possible with single enzymes in 2012. These methods and algorithms can help us discern new and peculiar nucleic acids that might be found not only in our lab, but in far-flung places on Earth and beyond.

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In his TEDMED 2015 talk, geneticist and urban metagenome researcher Chris Mason of Weill Cornell Medicine shares how he’s mapping his expertise into the distant future of outer space in the interest of humanity’s interplanetary survival.

Building innovation through scientific entrepreneurship

by Hemai Parthasarathy, guest contributor

For much of my career, I paid little attention to the path from scientific discovery to technological innovation in society. As a neuroscientist, I focused my research on the basal ganglia, a collection of deep brain regions, which are affected in diseases ranging from Parkinson’s to schizophrenia.  It’s tricky to study them – to even know what questions to ask about them – because they don’t receive strong direct inputs from the world (as, for example, the visual system does), nor do they directly interact with the world (as, for example, the motor system does).  I studied how the basal ganglia were connected to form functional systems (e.g. visual-motor), and I hoped to discover organizational principles that would illuminate this “dark basement of the brain.”

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

In papers and grant applications, I would, of course, mention the implications of my research for treating disease.  Even then, a (in my view) misplaced emphasis on “translational impact” was necessary to justify much of academic research.  But really, I knew absolutely nothing about the process of turning a scientific discovery into a useful technology and, frankly, I wasn’t very interested.  I wanted to understand how things worked and leave it to others (in “industry”, presumably) to mine the treasure trove of science for its applications.

Later, when I entered the world of “high impact” scientific publishing as an editor at Nature, I would publish papers which also touted the potential real-world impact of a discovery, usually in the final sentences of the discussion section.  A molecular crystal structure would promise new insight into drug development, an algorithm would be a step towards artificial intelligence and the future of computing. In most cases, the scientists who wrote these words were probably not planning to take the intervening steps themselves.

It’s only since we started Breakout Labs, that I have really thought deeply about those 
steps.  Many scientific breakthroughs are indeed created or adopted by existing commercial entities, but many require scientists with an entrepreneurial spirit and dedication to bring them forward.  We started Breakout Labs to help this modern breed of scientist-entrepreneur bring groundbreaking science out of the laboratory and into the economy, to change the world for the better.

Since then, I’ve had the enormous privilege of engaging with true Renaissance men and women, who have not only the capacity for deep scientific insight, but the drive and savvy to take on the challenges of building a company.  

When neuroscientist, Todd Huffman, with Megan Klimen, Matthew Goodman, and Cody Daniel, started 3Scan, they had a microscope that could automatically section and digitally reconstruct a mouse brain overnight.  An awesome technology, but who needed it most and who would pay for it?  Once they were able to answer that question, they were on their way to building a digital pathology business, which now includes 21 people and is raising a second round of funding from institutional investors.

When biomedical engineers, Nina Tandon and Sarindr Bhumiratana, understood the potential medical applications of their postdoctoral work on bone regeneration at Columbia University, they decided to start Epibone.  They are now navigating the world of technology licenses, convertible notes, and the FDA, while still conducting world-class science.

Hemai speaking on the TEDMED 2016 stage. (Photo: Sandy Huffaker)
Hemai speaking on the TEDMED 2016 stage. (Photo: Sandy Huffaker)

In the last five years, I’ve met and worked with an astonishing array of scientist-entrepreneurs. They range in age from 25 to 75. They were trained in disciplines ranging from nuclear physics to psychiatry. Many derive their motivation to solve problems based on personal experience.  Many are driven by the sheer awesomeness of their technology and a vision of the future based upon it.  

Despite this array of background and aspirations, they share the same struggles as they build their businesses.  They struggle to find not just money, but money that comes from investors and agencies who share and can support their vision.  They struggle to find talented people, to build and reward teams who will share their journey. They struggle with unexpected technical challenges that come with turning a serendipitous discovery into a repeatable, reliable product.

As part of Breakout Labs, they learn from each other, from us, and from our network.  And, as much as they learn from us, I am constantly learning from them just how packed that one paragraph in a grant application or paper about the “real-world implications” of a scientific discovery really is.

To learn more about Hemai’s work, watch her TEDMED 2015 talk: “How entrepreneurship can amplify scientific impact”.

Why do doctors practice race-based medicine?

by Dorothy Roberts, guest contributor

Biological scientists established decades ago that the human species can’t be divided into genetically discrete races. Social scientists have shown that the racial classifications we use today are invented social groupings. And historians of medicine have traced doctors’ current practice of treating patients by race to justifications for slavery. Doctors I’ve talked to readily concede that race is a “crude” proxy for patients’ individual characteristics and clinical indicators. Countless patients have been misdiagnosed and treated unjustly because of their race.

So why do doctors cling so fiercely to race-based medicine?

BWSyringe2One reason is force of habit. For generations, beginning in the slavery era, medical students have been taught to take the patient’s race into account. Race is built into the foundations of medical education, which assumes that people of different races are biologically distinct from each other and suffer from diseases in peculiar ways. What’s more, medical students aren’t given much latitude to question the lessons they are taught about race.  Without a radical disruption, these students go on to train the next generation of doctors with the same flawed racial dogmas.

Another reason is that doctors aren’t immune from commonly-held racial stereotypes and misunderstandings. Most Americans believe some version of a biological concept of race, and doctors are no exception. In fact, the entire field of biology has been plagued by controversy and confusion over the meaning of race. It is not surprising that the medical profession would be influenced by racial thinking that has been perpetuated in U.S. education, culture, and politics for centuries.

In addition, there are institutional and commercial incentives to continue practicing medicine by race. Starting in the 1980s, the federal government required the scientific use of racial categories to ensure greater participation of minorities in clinical research and to address health disparities. Unfortunately, this effort to diversify clinical studies focused on biological rather than social inequalities and has reinforced genetic definitions of race.  In 2005, the federal Food and Drug Administration approved the first race-specific drug, a therapy for African-American patients with heart failure, that was repackaged as a race-based pill to enable the cardiologist who developed it to obtain a patent. Labeling drugs by race may be financially advantageous to pharmaceutical companies by providing a marketing niche and an avenue for FDA approval. The biomedical research and pharmaceutical industries have tremendous influence over how medicine is practiced.

Doctors are quick to bristle at any suggestion that treating patients by race results from their own racial prejudice. They disavow any connection to blatantly racist medicine of the past—the horrific treatment of enslaved Africans; unethical medical experimentation on African Americans, such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and use of Henrietta Lacks’ cancer cells; Jim Crow segregation of medical services; and mass sterilization of black, Mexican-origin, Puerto Rican, and Native American women in the 1960s and 1970s.

Doctors argue that they are using race for benevolent reasons or, at most, as a benign way to classify their patients. But race is not a benign category. Race was invented to support racism and it is inextricably tied to racial oppression and the struggle against it. There is no biological reason to divide human beings into white, black, yellow, and red. Race seems natural only because we have been taught to see each other this way. Sometimes, when I speak to doctors about this topic, I can see their physical discomfort with giving up their reliance on race. It feels like asking deeply religious people to give up their belief in their deity. Race is more than an ordinary medical feature—it is part of people’s deeply-held identities, their sense of their place in society, and their view of how the world is ordered. This is why ending race-based medicine will require a great leap of imagination, a new vision of humanity tied to a movement for racial justice.

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Global scholar, University of Pennsylvania civil rights sociologist, and law professor Dorothy Roberts exposes the myths of race-based medicine in her TEDMED 2015 talk.

A Literary Treat from TEDMED 2015

TEDMED 2015's on-site bookstore, in partnership with Cellar Door Books.
TEDMED 2015’s on-site bookstore, in partnership with Cellar Door Books.

At TEDMED 2015, we partnered with Cellar Door Books – an independent bookstore based in Riverside, California – in carefully curating a selection of titles for our on-site bookstore. From tales of science, surgery and mystery to survival guides for parents of adolescents, the bookstore featured best-selling titles as well as works by past and present TEDMED speakers.

If you weren’t able to join us in person, don’t fret. We’re sharing the book list here and encourage you to check it out! Whether you’re simply on the market for new reading material or want to delve into the latest in health and medicine, we’ll have something for you. If you see something you like, we encourage you to purchase it from your local independent bookstore. Enjoy!

2015’s Research Scholars: Another Peek into What Makes a Great TEDMED Talk

Earlier this year, we shared details around some of the critical elements that support TEDMED’s editorial process. Specifically, we shared our core values, code of ethics, speaker selection process and the addition of TEDMED’s inaugural Editorial Advisory Board (EAB). As we explained, our EAB members advise TEDMED on topics, themes and speakers that should be considered when creating our annual stage program.

Now, as we prepare to announce this year’s program and speaker line-up, we want to give you a peek into another significant group that contributes to our editorial process: the TEDMED 2015 Research Scholars.

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When TEDMED curates the talks that are being considered for the stage each year, topics range literally from A (autoimmune disease) to Z (zona pellucida). To assist us with reviewing and researching the deep science behind potential topics, themes and speakers, TEDMED relies on outside feedback from our Research Scholars who are a diverse group of carefully selected experts.

Our Scholars are equipped with the professional training, objective knowledge and institutional credibility required to give TEDMED a wealth of insights, informed perspectives and thoughtful suggestions for further queries and investigation. TEDMED assembles Research Scholars from across the biomedical spectrum: university faculty, post-docs, grad students, public health professionals, entrepreneurs, science journalists and medical students from leading institutions and associations.

It’s no mystery why our Scholars break away from their busy schedules to volunteer their time in support of TEDMED’s mission. Each is a person of extraordinarily generous spirit; and, each is passionate about making a difference in health and medicine. We are proud to count the TEDMED Research Scholars as valued members of the TEDMED community…and we thank them for their outstanding contributions.

Without further ado…we are honored to recognize the Research Scholars for TEDMED 2015. See the full list here.

Stay informed as details around TEDMED 2015 continue to be shared. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook, and consider registering today for TEDMED 2015 in Palm Springs, November 18-20, at the beautiful historic La Quinta Resort! We’ll begin announcing details of the program next week.