The co-editors of a new journal, Psychedelic Medicine, Peter Hendricks and Charles Nichols, discuss the origins of the field, the genesis of the journal, and the key questions they hope it can answer.
Peter Hendricks and Charles Nichols, both PhD researchers in psychedelic medicine, first met at a conference in Madison, Wisconsin, in 2016. Their mutual research interests and dissatisfaction with some of the conferences in their field led to their support for a new professional society, the International Society for Research on Psychedelics (ISRP). That in turn attuned them to the need for a new journal dedicated to psychedelic medicine. And so, when a publishing executive from Mary Ann Liebert Inc. approached them about a year ago, they needed little persuasion.
The result is Psychedelic Medicine—a new journal published by Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. and led by the two co-editors, Hendricks (based at University of Alabama at Birmingham) and Nichols (Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans).
A clinical psychologist by training, Hendricks is interested in developing novel, more effective treatments for substance abuse disorders, notably in smoking cessation. Over the past six years or so, he’s been evaluating psilocybin as a potential therapeutic in the treatment of cocaine use disorder, with future trials planned on fibromyalgia, smoking cessation, and other indications.
After earning his PhD at Carnegie Mellon working on eye genetics in fruit flies, Nichols switched fields to study serotonin neuropharmacology at Vanderbilt. He’s been studying 5-HT2A receptors, their pharmacology and the behaviors they influence, for the past 25 years, with a growing interest in inflammation.
Humans have used psychedelic substances for many generations, says Nichols. The first wave of interest in western science traces back to the 1940s. A key event was the rediscovery of psilocybin by Gordon Wasson and his wife, which followed Albert Hoffman’s discovery of LSD, launching the field.
Another key event was the discovery of serotonin in the brain by Betty Tworg around 1954. Woolley and Shaw then theorized that LSD was interfering with the serotonin system and causing psychotic effects by altering serotonergic function. “That was one of the first realizations that mental illness could be due to a biological factor,” says Nichols. “Things were fairly Freudian up to that point. Suddenly mental illness had a biological basis and antipsychotics were also discovered around the same time.”
Nichols recalls his postdoc years, when his father advised him that psychedelic medicine would be “the kiss of death” for his career. Around 2016, however, there was a major shift around findings showing profound antidepressant and anxiolytic effects among people with advanced stage cancer.
“That was one of the first major events in getting this on the public’s radar,” says Nichols. Another tipping point was the publication of Michael Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind (in 2018). “Suddenly, everybody’s grandmother was reading about psychedelics,” he says.
Not surprisingly, industry interest has exploded in recent years. For a long time, there were only a handful of companies in the space. Around 2018–19, there was “a mushrooming of companies,” to the point there are now several hundred biotech startups, according to Nichols. A lot of money came from the cannabis industry. “It was this perfect storm of public interest in psychedelics, a bunch of cannabis billionaires who were looking for the next big thing and entrepreneurs saying, let’s get this,” he added, while noting there is not surprisingly some contraction and attrition going on.
While there are venture capital firms with funds dedicated to funding psychedelics, Nichols says no major pharma has stepped into the arena of direct research into psychedelics so far. One of the leaders in the space is COMPASS Pathways. “They have been the most successful doing the clinical trials.” Another company in the clinic is U.K.-based Beckley PsyTech, which recently acquired Eleusis Health Solutions.
Launching Psychedelic Medicine
“Shortly after Peter and I met,” Nichols says, “we were lamenting that all of the psychedelic conferences were really ‘infotainment’—there wasn’t really much meat, just a lot of non-scientific presentations. It was like finding a needle in a haystack to get something that was really scientific.” The pair became founding members of ISRP, with the goal being to launch a society exclusively focused on the psychedelic science. The first meeting took place in New Orleans in 2019 and was very well received.
In 2021, Nichols and Hendricks were contacted by the late Sarah Andrus, a publishing executive at Mary Ann Liebert, who said she was putting this journal together. “We were all on the same page, there was not a specific journal that was exclusively focused on psychedelics and rigorous preclinical research. We currently have to publish in other journals that aren’t really devoted to psychedelics. Having a high-quality peer-reviewed journal focused on psychedelics was something that is timely, because there are so many researchers out there now.”
Hendricks says in his major field of smoking cessation, the community grew as it overlapped with researchers in tobacco dependence and other misused drugs, requiring a new society. But Hendricks lamented the need to find venues and platforms for researchers with shared interests to study the questions unique to that particular field. “For a journal like this, you realize that when the field becomes big enough with questions that are unique to this field, it requires its own journal.”
Supporting the journal is one thing, but why take on the role of co-editor? Hendricks replies humorously: “I’ve always thought of myself as something of a nobody in this field, which I say with pride! I’m not traveling to Davos to give presentations to a room full of billionaires. I’m a scientist and I really like the work I do, but I’ve rather successfully flown under the radar… that means I’ve got the time to work on a journal like this. And I’m really happy to do that!”
Both Nichols and Hendricks pay tribute to Andrus for her role in steering the journal’s launch. “She was just amazing in her communications with us, her ideas and being a driver to put this whole thing together,” says Nichols. “I don’t think it would’ve happened without her.”
Hendricks adds: “Sarah was really motivated, really on the ball. She was emailing and texting and calling us every day and was just so fun to work with.” The preview issue is dedicated to Andrus’ memory.
The highlights of the newly published preview issue include a Bayesian re-analysis by Robin Carhartt Harris and colleagues of a trial on psilocybin as compared to escitalopram, which was initially published in the New England Journal of Medicine. There is also an expert roundtable discussion on the “past, present and future of psychedelics” and a proposed consensus statement on the definition of psychedelic drugs.
What sort of research do Hendricks and Nichols hope to publish in the new journal? “Many questions are going to be asked over the next few years, including for which conditions might psychedelics be useful, and for whom might they be beneficial,” adds Hendricks. Not all medicines will be effective for everyone. “Some people will respond really well, others won’t. A really important question going forward is determining who responds well.”
It comes down to precision medicine, says Hendricks. “For whom does this work? Why does it work? What are the circumstances in which we might use this? How do we optimize outcomes? These are all questions we don’t quite have the answer to yet, but I think we will soon. And that’s exciting!”
Going forward, the co-editors hope to encourage “really good high-quality research from any lab out there working on psychedelics,” says Nichols. “The goal is to provide a really good outlet. Maybe we could get somebody to submit to us instead of the New England Journal of Medicine… Then we’ll know we’ve made it!” he says laughing.
Clinical trials are interesting and get the press, Hendricks says, but “I think it’s also really important to emphasize some of the mechanistic studies, which are a little less digestible often by the public, but they’re no less important. Why are certain drugs effective? I think that question is the most important question we’ll ever ask in science, because if we understand exactly what’s at play here, then we can maximize their effectiveness.”
A particular area of interest to Nichols is inflammation. “My research on anti-inflammatory effects is not as sexy as brain imaging and clinical studies, but people are now starting to recognize that inflammation is really the basis of many different psychiatric diseases, depression, substance abuse disorder, and peripheral diseases.”
Initially the Psychedelic Medicine co-editors are going to focus on publishing original research papers, some editorials, and perhaps some industry perspectives. “As the journal becomes more successful, it will grow in different areas that maybe we’re not even aware of yet,” says Nichols.