Calgary

New U of C research position 1st in Canada to focus on psychedelic drug therapy for mental health

Jim Parker was impressed enough with the improvements his niece had shown after being treated with psychedelic drugs for post-traumatic stress disorder that he was willing to put up his own money for further research.

The field of psychedelics to treat mental health is attracting growing interest

Magic mushrooms are weighed and packaged at a farm in the Netherlands in this 2007 file photo. A new University of Calgary position, believed to be the first of its kind in Canada, will focus on the use of psychedelic drugs to improve mental health. (Peter Dejong/Associated Press)

Jim Parker was impressed enough with the improvements his niece had shown after being treated with psychedelic drugs for post-traumatic stress disorder that he was willing to put up his own money for further research.

The Calgary trader anted up $3 million for a new position at the University of Calgary focusing on the use of psychedelic drugs including ketamine, ecstasy and psilocybin — commonly known as magic mushrooms — to treat mental illness.

The university says the position is the first of its kind in Canada — similar research is being done at Johns Hopkins University in the U.S. The U of C has begun an internal candidate search to fill the position.

Parker said he became interested a couple of years ago when his adult niece, Courtney, was suffering from PTSD and addiction issues.

"She tried everything else. She tried antidepressants. She tried rehab and she was stuck for a number of years," Parker said.

Courtney was paralyzed by flashbacks, terrified to leave her home and unable to study for school. She was prescribed several medications, but said she felt numbed, trapped by her own mind and unable to heal.

"We sent her to a ketamine clinic in Los Angeles. The results were incredible. After years of struggling it was like she just snapped back and was the Courtney we had known several years prior," said Parker.

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto describes ketamine as a fast-acting anesthetic and painkiller used primarily in veterinary medicine. It can produce vivid dreams and a feeling of mind-body separation in humans.

Parker said his niece is still in therapy but the improvement is amazing.

"She's smiling again. She's back in school and really thriving."

Parker said Courtney received five rounds of intravenous ketamine therapy, precisely dosed and under medical supervision.

The field of psychedelics to treat mental health is attracting growing interest from the scientific and medical communities.

Dr. Valerie Taylor, a psychiatrist and clinician-researcher at the University of Calgary, will oversee the search for who will hold the new position. She said more extensive research into the use of psychedelics is needed.

"Most of the studies have been small. They haven't been particularly designed properly to carry weight with the regulatory bodies," Taylor said.

"We're hoping to take it to the next level and really see if we can work with scientists across the globe and regulatory bodies to help push this field in this direction."

Taylor, who studies new treatments for mental illness, said it's important to know whether promising research is on track.

"Hopefully it's a move forward, because the research shows this is something that really makes a difference. But if it doesn't seem to be as positive as some of the anecdotal stories say, we also need to know that so we don't waste time and money," she said.

"There's enough preliminary evidence to make it worthwhile looking further. Does that mean at the end this is going to be the next panacea? Absolutely not, but maybe it will work for some people."

Psychedelics remain a restricted substance in Canada although Health Canada has granted some exceptions that allow for individual therapy sessions using psilocybin for the terminally ill. 

Parker is also starting a private medical clinic in Calgary, Bloom Psychedelic Therapy and Research Centre, to provide a place for legal ketamine-assisted therapy and possible future research trials. 

The University of Calgary will also be holding a free online lecture on the use of psychedelic drug therapies on June 25. 

With files from CBC's Sarah Rieger

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