By Dorien Tatala
The Old World has had its own remarkable history concerning psychedelic research – it was after all the continent where Albert Hofmann first discovered LSD and where Dutch professor Jan Bastiaans treated the trauma of Holocaust survivors with the same substance for many decades.
Now, the psychedelic wave has washed ashore again in Europe, and we’re here to witness it first-hand. In this piece, we have attempted to give the most complete overview of the current wave of psychedelic science that’s happening on the European continent.
The past decade has seen a new wave of academic research into psychedelics – a fledgling but true renaissance of this scientific frontier. Currently, phase 2 trials are underway for the study of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy in the treatment of PTSD in Europe, psilocybin studies are underway in more than one nation, and multiple academic hubs facilitate growth of the field.
Below we summarize the experimental psychedelic studies in the fields of (clinical) psychology, psychiatry and neuroscience in Europe. Many of these studies are still young, and will take years to complete. Still, this decade will likely harbor historic moments in moving psychedelics into the mainstream in Europe – because psychedelics science has only just started scratching the surface of what’s possible.
- Imperial College in London
- The University of Basel
- University of Zurich – the latter being an official study site of the Heffter Research Institute.
In addition to the research carried out at these universities, two multi-site trials – sponsored by the non-profit organisation MAPS (mdma) and the for-profit Compass Pathways (psilocybin) – are underway in Europe, thereby involving various academic treatment centers in Europe in psychedelics research.
There are a few main research hubs in Europe where most of the psychedelics research is concentrated. At these locations, multiple studies below are performed.
Experimental research 🔬
Below we summarize the current European research into three psychedelic substances: LSD, psilocybin or mdma3.
Experimental research can be broken down into two basic categories. The first are the clinical trials, in which psychedelics are administered to patient populations. The other is neurobiological research, in which the effect of psychedelics on healthy participants are studied.
Of course, the field of psychedelic research is much broader and includes naturalistic, historical and qualitative research methods such as used in the social sciences and humanities. For lack of a central registry in which such studies are enlisted, it is harder to keep track of ongoing non-experimental (social scientific) research.
Clinical Studies 👩🏫
First, let’s look at all the clinical studies that are going on.
LSD studies in Switzerland
“LSD is a Baseler product,” said Matthias Liechti to the Guardian about the most famous product from Basel, Switzerland. Liechti – a professor in clinical pharmacology at University Hospital Basel and speaker at ICPR 2020 – studies the effects of LSD on the human mind and body. “It’s tied to Basel’s history as a centre of pharmacology and innovation.”
How fitting that almost all research with LSD is taking place in the substance’s ‘place of birth’, Basel.
- LSD as Treatment for Cluster Headache – University Hospital Basel
Cluster headaches are the most painful and debilitating form of headache, for which available medication often does not work sufficiently. LSD has been reported to abort cluster headache attacks and to decrease their frequency. Headed by lead investigator Professor Matthias Liechti and conducted by Yasmin Schmid, MD, this double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover study will administer LSD (or a placebo) to 30 patients suffering from cluster headaches. They will receive three doses of 100 micrograms within a three week period.
- LSD Therapy for Major Depression – University Hospital Basel.
This study will test the efficacy of LSD therapy in patients with Major Depressive Disorder and is recruiting 60 patients. The treatment group will undergo two sessions with LSD (100 & 200 μg) and the control group will undergo two sessions with an active placebo (25 μg and 50 μg LSD). This study is lead by Prof. Dr. med. Stefan Borgwardt and has just started recruiting. It is estimated to be completed by the summer of 2023.
- LSD Treatment for Anxiety in Severe Somatic Diseases – University Hospital Basel
In this study, 40 patients with an Anxiety Disorder will be given a single dose of LSD. Due to its cross-over within-subjects design, all patients will receive both a placebo dose and an active dose: 200 μg LSD. This study is a collaboration between University Hospital Basel and the private practice of Peter Gasser, MD, who is also the study’s principal investigator.
Psilocybin studies in Europe
About a third of all experimental studies with psilocybin are happening in Europe. All of the European psychedelic research hubs – University of Zurich, University Hospital Basel and Imperial College London – are currently involved in clinical or neurobiological research with psilocybin. Europe also hosts 11 of the 21 sites of the clinical study on psilocybin therapy for treatment resistant depression – for which its sponsor Compass Pathways was granted a breakthrough therapy status by the FDA in 2018.
Clinical studies with patients:
- Psilocybin vs Escitalopram for Major Depressive Disorder – Imperial College, London
This study is recruiting 50 patients suffering from depression in order to compare the efficacy and mechanisms of action of psilocybin with the SSRI Escitalopram. Principal investigator of this study is Professor David Nutt.
- Clinical, Neurocognitive, and Emotional Effects of Psilocybin in Depressed Patients – Proof of Concept – University of Zurich
This study is recruiting 60 participants with a mild or moderate depressive episode. They will receive either a single dose of psilocybin (0.215mg / kg body weight) or a single dose of placebo. This research is conducted by Professor Franz X Vollenweider.
- Clinical and Mechanistic Effects of Psilocybin in Alcohol Addicted Patients – University of Zurich
This study will test the efficacy of psilocybin for treating alcohol use disorder and study its underlying neurobiological mechanisms in a randomized, placebo controlled, double blind study. 60 participants are recruited for this study. Six weeks after undergoing a withdrawal treatment, they will either receive a single dose of placebo or a single dose of psilocybin (25 mg, orally). Dr. Katrin Peller is the principal investigator in this study.
- The Safety and Efficacy of Psilocybin in Participants with Treatment Resistant Depression. This is a multi-site clinical trial with 21 study locations in North America and Europe, sponsored by the (for profit) organization Compass Pathways. The following European sites are involved in this study:
- Enhed for Psykiatrisk Forskning, Psykiatrien i Aalborg – Aalborg, Denmark
- Tallaght University Hospital – Dublin, Ireland
- Groningen University Medical Centre – Groningen, the Netherlands
- Leiden University Medical Centre – Leiden, the Netherlands
- Utrecht University Medical Centre – Utrecht, the Netherlands
- Hospital de Dia Numancia – Barcelona, Spain
- Institute Hospital del Mar of Medical Research (IMIM) – Barcelona, Spain
- Clinical Research and Imaging Centre – Bristol, United Kingdom
- Wolfson Research Centre, Campus for Ageing and Vitality – Newcastle Upon Tyne, United Kingdom
- Kings College London, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neurology – London, United Kingdom
- Greater Manchester Mental Health Foundation Trust – Manchester, United Kingdom
MDMA studies by MAPS
The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelics Studies from the United States -and headed by Rick Doblin- is planning phase 2 and phase 3 clinical trials to develop MDMA-assisted psychotherapy into an approved treatment for PTSD. In order to conduct part of these trials in Europe, MAPS has created a European-based subsidiary.
Six study sites in five European countries are involved in the “Open Label Multi-Site Study of Safety and Effects of MDMA-assisted Psychotherapy for Treatment of PTSD With Optional fMRI Sub-Study”:
- Czechia – NUDZ – National Institute of Mental Health, Klecany
- Norway – Sykehuset Østfold Hf, DPS Norder, Moss
- Maastricht University, Dept of Neuropsychology and Psychopharmacology – Maastricht
- Stichting Centrum ’45/Arq – Oestgeest
- Portugal – Fundação de Anna de Sommer Champalimaud, Lisbon
- United Kingdom – University Hospital of Wales – Research Facility, Cardiff
The University of Bristol and Imperial College London are collaborating in an ongoing study on mdma as a treatment for alcoholism. The “Bristol Imperial MDMA in Alcoholism Study (BIMA)” is an open label within-subject feasibility study in 20 patients with Alcohol Use Disorder who have recently undergone detoxification. The study is conducted by Ben Sessa, MD and its principal investigator is Professor David Nutt.
🧠 Studies into the psychedelic state itself
LSD AND PSILOCYBIN
- Direct Comparison of Altered States of Consciousness Induced by LSD and Psilocybin – University Hospital Basel
Both LSD and psilocybin are used as pharmacological tools in neuroscience. However, there are no modern studies comparing these two substances directly within the same clinical study and using validated psychometric tools. In this study the researchers will compare the acute effects of LSD, psilocybin and placebo. 30 Healthy participants will be administered various dosages of these psychedelics, the effects of which will be measured with various assessment tools.
The study is conducted by Friederike Holze and Professor Matthias Liechti.
- Effects of Serotonin Transporter Inhibition on the Subjective Response to Psilocybin in Healthy Subjects – University Hospital Basel
The aim of the study is to investigate the effects of psilocybin after Escitalopram and placebo pretreatment. Subjective and physiological effects as well as effects on gene expression will be assessed. This study is recruiting 24 healthy participants who will be pretreated with either Escitalopram or a placebo. On each of the 2 study days, participants will receive psilocybin 25 mg orally. Professor Matthias E. Liechti is the principal investigator in this study.
- Comparative Acute Effects of LSD, Psilocybin and Mescaline –University Hospital Basel
This study compares the acute effects of LSD, psilocybin, mescaline and placebo in a double-blind, placebo-controlled, 4-period cross-over design. In four separate sessions, the 25 healthy participants will receive 100 μg LSD, 20 mg psilocybin, 300 mg mescaline and a placebo. Professor Matthias E. Liechti is the principal investigator in all three of the above psilocybin studies taking place in Basel.
- Beyond the Self and Back: Neuropharmacological Mechanisms Underlying the Dissolution of the Self – University of Zurich
In terms of the number of participants in a single study, this is currently the largest experimental study with psilocybin in Europe. 140 Healthy participants are divided into 4 groups, each with it’s own double-blind, placebo-controlled setup. One of the groups consists of long-term and short-term meditators during a 5-day group retreat. The aim of the study is to identify neural signatures, behavioral and phenomenological expressions of self-related processes.
- Characterization of Altered Waking States of Consciousness in Healthy Humans – University of Zurich
This study uses a combination of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and high density electroencephalography (hd-EEG) to measure the level of consciousness in a pharmacologically altered waking state of consciousness (induced by psilocybin).
Lead investigator Professor Franz X. Vollenweider and his team are recruiting 25 healthy participants for this study.
MDMA and fear
- University Hospital Basel is currently recruiting healthy participants for a study called “The Effect of MDMA (Serotonin Release) on Fear Extinction”. Fear extinction is a psychological process that plays a crucial role in treating disorders such as PTSD. Although MDMA has been shown to enhance the extinction of fear in animals, no data exists on the effect of MDMA on fear extinction in humans. The lead investigator in this study is Professor Matthias E. Liechti, MD.
Should you be interested in contributing to science by participating in a clinical/neuroimaging study: most of these studies are still recruiting. Look them up on this website to study their inclusion and exclusion criteria and to find out more.
This overview only covers the research that has been registered at clinicaltrials.gov and is therefore not exhaustive. Do you know of other ongoing experimental studies in Europe, feel free to reach out to us!
1 The FDA (Food and Drug Administration in the US) granted the label ‘breakthrough therapy’ to mdma-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD (sponsored by MAPS) in 2017. In 2018 the treatment of depression with psilocybin (sponsored by Compass Pathways) was granted the breakthrough therapy status, followed by a designation for the research by Usona in 2019, also for the treatment of major depression with psilocybin assisted therapy.
2 Of course there are other psychedelics, but for the scope of this article we focus on the most popular substances for clinical research. We also focus on trials that induce psychedelic effects – unlike for example many ketamine trials where sub-psychedelic dosages are used.