David Mokler, PhD, is Professor Emeritus of Pharmacology at the University of New England. He has a dual Doctorate in Pharmacology/ Toxicology and Neurosciences from Michigan State University. Dr. Mokler teaches at the College of Osteopathic Medicine, the Westbrook College of Health Professions and the College of Dental Medicine. He has published widely on the serotonergic system of the brain and studied the effects of maternal malnutrition during gestation and infancy on the brain and behavior since 1995. His research, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, focuses on the limbic (emotion/behavior) system of the brain.
You have been an early researcher and advocate for psychedelics. What did you first find so exciting about psychedelics and their medical potential?
I have been fascinated since the 60s of the power of psychedelics to produce profound changes in consciousness. How can a small dose of a drug alter a person’s perception for hours and results in a long-term change in a person’s outlook? This made me excited to focus on the actions of hallucinogenic drugs on the brain, particularly the serotonergic system for my doctoral work. This excitement has increased as we are seeing recent work on more medical benefit to psychiatric conditions by the use of psychedelic medicines.
You have been a leading researcher around serotonin and how different drugs effect the brain. What have been some of your most compelling discoveries around psychedelics and the brain?
During my graduate training at Michigan State University with Richard Rech, we discovered the selectivity of hallucinogens for a subtype of the serotonin receptor, the 5-HT2 receptor. It was only after our work that the 5-HT2a and 2c receptors were identified. The 5-HT2a and 2c receptors have been shown to be involved in not only how the hallucinogens work but also in psychosis and drug addiction. This work gives us a better understanding of how psychedelic medicines work in the brain to treat psychiatric illness.
During my work with John Rosecrans and Susan Robinson at the Medical College of Virginia, that we did some of the early work on the neurotoxicity of MDMA. High doses of MDMA and continued use over a period of time has been shown in animal studies to act as a neurotoxin to serotonin. It is still unclear if this occurs after therapeutic doses.
I continued in both lines of research when I established my own laboratory at the University of New England.
You have some of the first published scientific papers around LSD and MDMA, going back more than four decades. How did you know you were on to something then and what did you do to validate the science of psychedelics at that point in time?
In the 1970s when I did the research on hallucinogens, science was discovering how the serotonin system of the brain works. We applied this knowledge and were excited to be able to see how the serotonergic system was affected by hallucinogen drugs. It required a number of additional years of research to start to understand how these drugs were producing these changes in the brain. With the advent of new human studies, I am hopeful that we will be able to continue to make progress in understanding the impact of these drugs on the brain and how they can be used to improve the human condition.
You have done a lot of work that relates to the 5HT2a receptors in psychedelics. Could you explain that in very simple terms what that means and what its implications are?
Recent research has identified a network in the brain of humans and animals called the default mode network, which is simply the activity of the brain at rest. Recent research has shown a role for the 5-HT2a and 5-HT2c receptors in the regulation of this network. There are correlations between activation of this network and psychiatric disorders such as depression. Hallucinogens reduce the activity in this network through these serotonin receptors. What remains to be determined is if this is how psychedelics produce long-term therapeutic effects.
What misconceptions do you think many people still hold about psychedelic medicines?
That they are dangerous drugs that will lead to dangerous activities, such as trying to fly, or, worse, psychosis. And that they are addictive drugs. People need to understand that the risks are minimal and there is no possibility of addiction. Appropriately guided treatment with these drugs poses very little risk.
As one of the many early pioneers of the psychedelic medicine space, what have you seen change culturally when it comes to the conversation about psychedelics?
It is amazing to see the people taking charge of their own mental health and deciding what they want for medical treatment. First with the use of cannabis both medically and recreationally, and now with the psychedelics. It is powerful when researchers and clinicians work together to provide useful treatment with psychedelics despite the prohibitions put on us by the legal system that has had it wrong. Change and not just acceptance, but mainstream curiosity and interest are emerging.
What got you excited about being a part of Havn Life Sciences?
For many years, the research and the move toward mass acceptance of psychedelics was halted. In this new wave of growing acceptance, Havn Life has an opportunity to build the foundation for the supply chain of psychedelic medicine while adding to our understanding of psychedelics. I am excited to be a part of the revolution taking place in psychedelic medicine and to lend my expertise to the team at Havn Life so that they can pave the way for psychedelic medicine and more specifically, naturally-derived medicines.
What role will you play at Havn Life?
I’ve spent the better part of my academic career studying the brain and its relationship to drugs. Havn Life is laying the groundwork to provide psychedelics to researchers and one day, to patients as a medicine. I will be lending my expertise in science and the psychedelics to inform the team at Havn Life science to enable them to move forward with these goals.
What are you most excited about now as it relates to new science and clinical trials around psychedelics?
The time has finally come, and we are finally getting to the point of being serious about developing these therapies, following 50 years of so many great ideas regarding the benefits of using psychedelics for therapy. I expect to see an exponential increase in our understanding of how these compounds can aid cognitive functions. Psychiatric diseases are lifelong diseases and some of the most difficult disorders to treat. Psychedelic medicines have the potential to produce long-term treatment of diseases such as depression and substance abuse. This will reduce the suffering caused by psychiatric disease.
Who is someone you think is doing incredible work in this space who more people should be aware of?
There are many scientists and clinicians who are challenging the thinking on psychedelic medicines. This work is built on the shoulders of giants who came before. This is how science should work. I am looking forward to seeing who else will emerge as leading voices in this community as it becomes more accepted and mainstream.