UC Davis Magazine Feature Article: Changing Minds

UC Davis researchers are bringing the benefits of drugs like LSD and cannabis to light. They may be the next big thing in pharmaceuticals for treating a range of problems like depression and anxiety.

For decades, possession and use of drugs like LSD and cannabis has come with a threat of prosecution and jail time. But in the past few years, researchers have started taking a closer look at these compounds, finding potential for new treatments for psychiatric and central nervous system problems such as seizures, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. UC Davis scientists are among the small group of licensed researchers pushing the field forward — including launching startup companies to help bring these new drugs to market. 

The need for new drugs

Mental health disorders are very common. About 1 in 5 Americans live with some form of mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. 

Drugs are available to help these patients, said Cameron Carter, distinguished professor in the UC Davis Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and Center for Neuroscience. “We have a repertoire of effective treatments that we didn’t have 30 or 40 years ago.”

At the same time, existing drugs have drawbacks, Carter said. They are slow-acting, taking days or weeks to show effect. Not all patients respond to current treatments, and they are based on a limited understanding of the root causes of mental illness.

UC Davis associate professor in chemistry David Olson became interested in psychedelic drugs for psychiatric treatment as a postdoctoral researcher at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

At the time, a lot of research focused on ketamine, Olson said. Ketamine is used as an anesthetic and also abused as a recreational drug. But it also turns out to be a remarkably effective antidepressant. Ketamine acts within hours, and the effect of a single treatment can last for up to a week, Olson said. It works across a range of indications including depression, PTSD and substance abuse. 

In 2019, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved esketamine, a version of the drug delivered as a nasal spray, for treatment of severe, treatment-
resistant depression. The treatment has to be given in a clinical setting, where the patient is monitored for several hours. 

A common feature of disorders such as depression, anxiety and PTSD is atrophy, or withering of neurons in the prefrontal cortex. Ketamine appears to act by reversing this atrophy and repairing neural connections in the brain.

Read the remainder of this article in the Spring/Summer 2022 issue of UC Davis Magazine.

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