Dr. Alan K. Davis is a Clinical Psychologist and the Director of the Center for Psychedelic Drug Research and Education in the College of Social Work at Ohio State University. He is Assistant Professor of Social Work and Psychiatry at OSU and is also on the faculty in the Department of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University.
Alan has extensive clinical experience working with US Military Veterans and civilians suffering with addiction, PTSD, and depression. His research explores alternative treatments for addiction and mental illness, including psychedelic-assisted therapies, and how to increase access to current treatment systems through reducing provider stigma about substance misuse and alternative treatment approaches. Alan has published over 70 scientific articles and book chapters and presented research at dozens of national and international scientific conferences. Published landmark trial in 2021 on the use of psilocybin therapy for depression in JAMA psychiatry. This year, he is launching a pilot study of the first psilocybin trial for Veterans with PTSD.
What first sparked your interest in psychedelics as a potential medical treatment?
What first sparked my interest in psychedelics was my work as a clinician in graduate school. I was working towards my PhD and treating veterans with PTSD and addiction, and I noticed that many of the treatments that were the gold standard weren't sufficient to meet everyone's needs. I just wanted to find more options and so that led me to being interested in psychedelic therapy.
You recently became the director of Ohio State University’s new Center for Psychedelic Drug Research & Education, what will the Center be focused on?
I am the director of the new CPDRE center. The center has two foci:
One is an educational side, which includes the first academic conference about psychedelics at OSU this coming August 2022. That conference is an interdisciplinary conference focused on the topic of psychedelics in fields such as medicine and psychiatry, as well as law and policy, public health, anthropology, education, etc. As part of that education initiative, we're also hosting a pre-conference workshop for clinicians on the topic of psilocybin therapy. Our educational initiatives also include the launch of a 25-credit hour online continuing education certificate program, which we're hoping to launch in early 2023. And then eventually, we're hoping to launch an entire academic minor for undergraduate students here at OSU on the topic of Psychedelic Studies.
The second foci for our center is one of research. We're engaged in lots of different research, but one of our primary endeavors that we're launching this fall is a psilocybin trial for PTSD. We're hoping that, following FDA and DEA approval, the trial will start enrolling subjects by early 2023. We also have focus on lots of other research, including survey studies of naturalistic psychedelic use and other topics.
What do you hope to develop and study at the Center for Psychedelic Drug Research & Education?
We're interested in psychedelic medicines. We're interested in psilocybin therapy, MDMA therapy, and we're hoping to launch some of the first clinical trials on the topic of 5-MeO-DMT treatment, in addition to all of our survey studies and other projects.
What studies are you currently working on and most excited about?
I think what I'm most excited about is launching the first clinical trial of psilocybin therapy at OSU and in the Midwest at the university. So that's very exciting to us. Getting through all of the regulatory hurdles necessary for that, in the coming months, will hopefully set the foundation for more trials in the future here at OSU.
Can you share more about your work at Johns Hopkins and what your research into substance use disorders has revealed?
My work at Johns Hopkins involved leading our depression trial, which we published in JAMA psychiatry, in 2021. I was a clinician delivering the intervention, as well as an administrative co-leader, managing the trial team there, and it was very exciting to work on that study. Other people there are working specifically in treatments or substance use disorders, all of that research, whether it's depression or substance use problems, has shown that psilocybin therapy can lead to pretty large effects in decreasing problematic substance use depression, etc. So, it's pretty exciting work.
We're seeing results from across different studies and different teams around the world, all pointing to the potential therapeutic mechanisms of psychedelics.
What inspired you to study the application of psychedelics in vulnerable populations including people of color who have experienced racial trauma?
In terms of my work, looking at vulnerable populations, including veterans, people of color who have experienced racial trauma. We also are doing some preliminary work in Spanish speaking populations, as well as gender and sexual minority populations. All of this work on vulnerable populations stems from the lack of representation of minority individuals in psychedelic clinical trials. The work that I'm establishing at OSU and with the CPDRE, largely aims to address this gap by building the infrastructure we need to do clinical trials. And then we're hoping that if we can get funding for it, in the coming years, we can launch clinical trials specifically in each of these vulnerable populations, including people of color, gender, sexual minorities, and Spanish speaking individuals.
Do you think there are any inherent biases in psychedelics research that need to be addressed?
Yes. One of the big biases is that I don't know any psychedelic researcher who isn't completely convinced that psychedelic medicines are effective, so that's a pretty big bias as a researcher to go into a study already assuming and believing that the outcome will be positive. That’s one of the reasons why it's so important to conduct rigorous trials that include blinding or placebos in order to try to balance that out.
What do you think is the most common misconception around psychedelics?
I think the biggest misconception is that it that somehow these are a panacea, or, you know, a magic bullet to solve our mental health problems in the US. They're not a magic bullet. They are not going to magically solve all of these problems in the US. Psychedelic medicine provides an opportunity.
I think psychedelic medicine offers an opportunity and a window to help people potentially change. They don't work for everyone, and they don't magically solve people's problems. The magic comes after the psychedelic experience in the new ways in which people are thinking about themselves and their relationships and their environment and their jobs — the new ways in which they're moving forward in their life. The work that it takes to integrate those psychedelic experiences, that's where the magic happens. And so that's where the rubber meets the road, so to speak.
Where do you see psychedelic medicines in the future and how much of an impact do you think they will make on healthcare as a whole?
I think they will be well positioned to offer a new option for folks who are not getting the help they need from our current system. I do think that it'll take a long time before they are integrated into the system. I think it'll be a while until that happens. But, hopefully in the meantime, once we can get some initial approvals by FDA — likely for psilocybin and MDMA — then there will likely be specialty clinics that will pop up that will provide this type of treatment for folks who want to seek it out.
Who is doing important work in the world of psychedelics that you think more people should be aware of?
I think that there's some really interesting work going on by Monica Williams, up at the University of Ottawa. She's doing incredible work related to people of color and racial trauma and psychedelics. There's also Terence Ching, who's currently a postdoctoral fellow at Yale, doing really important work, looking at obsessive compulsive disorder and psychedelics. There's also some really great work being done at UCSF by Jae Savelius who is working with sexual and gender minority populations. There’s, frankly, a lot of really good work going on all over the place.