Research

BCSP brings together researchers from across disciplines, including neuroscience, molecular biology, psychology, education, social science, chemistry, and genetics, and experts in public policy, law, health economics, culture, and religion.

BCSP conducts psychology and neuroscience research, but does not offer clinical treatment for mental health conditions. If you are seeking mental health care, please contact a licensed mental healthcare provider where you live. If you are having a medical emergency, please call “911” or go to the nearest emergency room. If you are having thoughts of suicide, please call or text “988” to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Research Overview

We are in the midst of an explosion in clinical research on the efficacy of psychedelic medicines and psychedelic-assisted therapy in the treatment of mental health disorders. These clinical studies and trials have produced encouraging results suggesting that psychedelic therapy can ameliorate the symptoms of many mental health disorders that are otherwise resistant to existing treatments. 

To complement these ongoing clinical investigations, BCSP will leverage UC Berkeley’s strengths in basic neuroscience, psychology, and molecular biology to conduct studies to help elucidate the mechanistic bases of the actions of psychedelics and subjective psychedelic experiences, as well as their enduring effects.

This type of research in human subjects had been suppressed for fifty years for social and political reasons, but during that time there have been dramatic improvements in experimental techniques for probing the mind and brain, as well as associated conceptual advances in psychology and neuroscience.

Alongside clinical and other basic scientific research, big philosophical questions about epistemology, or ways of knowing, arise when experiencing or learning about psychedelics. In addition, practitioners, academics, and the media are asking questions about the political and societal consequences of psychedelics research and education, particularly for historically underrepresented communities.

BCSP will look to find answers to these questions through social science research that analyzes contextual aspects of psychedelics, education, and related fields. Through research fellowships, BCSP will increase the number and diversity of individuals trained to produce rigorous psychedelic science and knowledge.

Human Neuroscience Research

A more complete mechanistic understanding of the way psychedelics affect brain function will be essential to better characterize and quantify the effects of psychedelics, to identify clinical protocols that lead to the best treatment outcomes, and to optimize these treatments for specific mental health disorders and individual patients. 

BCSP researchers will conduct two types of laboratory studies with human subjects: “low dose” allow placebo-controlled experiments to be conducted during the psychedelic experience itself, and “high dose” will focus on long-lasting transformative effects of the psychedelic experience. 

Our initial research protocol consists of low-dose psilocybin functional MRI experiments to obtain a deeper understanding of the neural correlates of the psychedelic experience. This study protocol received FDA approval in January 2022 and the campus’ Institutional Review Board approval in May 2022. We are planning to enroll our first human subject volunteers in fall 2022 (pending DEA and Research Advisory Panel of California approval). 

UC Berkeley provides an ideal environment for conducting neuroimaging studies with psychedelic drugs in human subjects. The Henry H. Wheeler Jr. Brain Imaging Center, located on campus, has completed installation of the NexGen 7 Tesla MRI scanner, the first ever high-field MRI scanner optimized specifically for human cerebral cortical imaging. This instrument is the result of a $20 million effort led by UC Berkeley and involving the NIH, Siemens, and a consortium of collaborating universities.

The NexGen 7 Tesla MRI scanner will provide unprecedented spatial resolution to reliably identify individual columns and layers within the cerebral cortex. BCSP researchers will employ this powerful tool to determine how psychedelic drugs affect perceptual priors and to quantify changes in brain representations during the psychedelic experience.

Psychedelics and Neuroplasticity

In a study led by UC Berkeley neuroscientist Andrea Gomez, BCSP researchers aim to understand the molecular and cellular basis for how psychedelics produce long-lasting changes in the brain. Insight from these studies will be harnessed into state-of-the-art CRISPR genome editing technologies to target the neural plasticity programs engaged by psychedelics. The molecular technologies produced by this effort aim to develop therapeutic applications for mental health conditions associated with defective neural plasticity, such as neurodegeneration.

Study on Psychedelics, Awe, and Enduring Personal and Social Change

In this study, led by Dacher Keltner, researchers will explore the neurophysiology and subjective experiences of awe and other self-transcendent states (compassion, gratitude, bliss) as they unfold during psychedelic experiences. They will document how these transformative shifts in sense of self give rise to enduring changes in well-being, physical health, and inclination to integrate into communities and engage in prosocial behavior.

Ethnographic Research: A Longitudinal Case Study

In this observational study, UC Berkeley education professor Tina Trujillo will conduct a longitudinal, ethnographic study of the BCSP’s Certificate Program. This research will explore the socio-cultural, political, and epistemological dynamics that transpire in a professional education program crafted to bridge scientific, spiritual, and other perspectives to prepare diverse cohorts of psychedelic facilitators. The mixed-methods study will integrate qualitative and quantitative data to analyze the various cultural phenomena that shape and are shaped by the emerging field of psychedelics education.

Educational Evaluation of the BCSP’s Certificate Program

Currently, there is a dearth of empirical evidence about what works in psychedelic facilitation, how best to design and implement a facilitation training program to meet particular contextual needs, and how to measure success. Dr. Tina Trujillo is conducting a longitudinal evaluation of the Berkeley model to systematically answer some of these questions. Lessons from this evaluation will be used to continually refine the development of the Center’s training model, as well as to disseminate knowledge about best practices in programs’ curriculum, instruction, staffing, and organizational design for both practitioner and scholarly communities.