Dr. David E. Nichols has been working in the field of psychoactive drugs since 1969. He was the Founding President of the Heffter Research Institute, the former Chair of Pharmacology at Purdue University, and has published approximately 250 scientific reports and book chapters describing the relationship the structure of a molecule and its biological effects.
You’ve been at the forefront of psychoactive drug research since 1969. What major milestones and studies stand out to you?
Probably the first FDA-approved administration of DMT to humans by Rick Strassman. That study demonstrated that FDA would approve giving psychedelics to humans. It wasn’t a therapeutic study, but was a sort of proof of principle that it could be done.
What made you personally want to get involved in this field?
A lot of curiosity. After I graduated from high school in 1962, I lived at home and commuted to the University of Cincinnati because my parents didn’t have money to send me off to live in a dorm. But all of my friends went away to school, many of them to the University of Kentucky. It was not that far away and they would come back for weekend visits and talk about smoking “reefer” and this stuff called acid that was going around. I was concerned that they might become addicted and counseled them to not use drugs. They laughed at me and told me I didn’t know what I was talking about. So I bought a used book on pharmacology and read about marijuana and found that it was not dangerous or addictive. That led me to question all the media that was starting to come out about “drugs”. I started reading more about mescaline and LSD and it seemed that these were very powerful substances that could transform lives. I had always been interested in medicine and physiology so I got very interested in studying how drugs like mescaline worked in the brain and decided to go to graduate school and find a laboratory where I could study them.
What do you believe is the most important thing for people to understand about the future of psychedelics as medicine?
That all of the old media hype about how dangerous psychedelic drugs were is for the most part completely wrong. There has not really been any innovation in the pharmaceutical industry in developing new medicines to treat depression, anxiety disorders, or addictions. Now it appears that psychedelics may be the new technology for treating these illnesses. Politics delayed the discovery of the therapeutic value of psychedelics for half a century.
What excites you most about the potential of psychedelic drug discovery? Which current studies are you most excited about and why?
It is hard to focus on one study. Larger studies of psilocybin treatment for depression and alcohol use disorder are underway now. I will be very excited to see FDA recognition that psilocybin is an effective medication for depression and addictions. I am also excited about a new study of eating disorders using psilocybin-assisted therapy.
How do you feel about all of the recent hype, media attention and investment interest coming in to the psychedelic space?
It is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, a big challenge is the re-education of people who still believe that psychedelics (which many still call hallucinogens) are dangerous and lead to addiction. This re-education is necessary for widespread acceptance of these substances as legitimate medicines, including by politicians and law enforcement personnel. But on the other hand, along with all the media attention has come a lot of misinformation and urban legends, including the notion that someday they will be over the counter drugs that anyone can just buy and use. Some media people have drawn an analogy between psychedelics and marijuana, and it is not an apt analogy. A lot of the media hype has portrayed psychedelics as fairly benign substances, when in fact they are not. These substances are very powerful and, used in the wrong hands and used inappropriately, lives can be destroyed.
What are you working on at the moment in the realm of psychedelics and what potential impact do you think it could have?
Since my retirement from Purdue in June 2012, I have not been involved in my own laboratory research. I continue work with the Heffter Research Institute, which I founded in 1993, which still funds basic and clinical studies of psychedelics, especially looking for novel treatments. I am presently an adjunct professor in a UNC lab that is at the forefront of research on g-protein coupled receptors, including the 5-HT2A receptor, which is the principal target for psychedelics. I bring my medicinal chemistry expertise to bear when I get the opportunity. The lab is working on understanding how psychedelics work in the brain and the potential discovery of new drugs.
Who is someone doing important and meaningful work in this area who you think doesn’t get enough credit for their contributions?
I would have to say it is my son, Charles D. Nichols, a professor at the LSU school of health sciences in New Orleans. He discovered that some psychedelics have extremely powerful anti-inflammatory properties, for example being able to prevent or reverse asthma in a rat model. The anti-inflammatory effects are very profound, more so than any conventional drug like ibuprofen and the like, but because his work is not as “exciting” as treatment of depression or addictions, his work does not get nearly the attention I believe it deserves.