Magic mushrooms as treatment for depression, PTSD other issues is getting a major boost at Johns Hopkins University, as researchers continue efforts, sometimes backed by venture capital, to find therapies in alternative, overlooked places.

Johns Hopkins, which has been researching the possibilities of psychedelic drugs for nearly two decades, on Wednesday opened a $17 million center to research whether they can help treat addiction, Alzheimer’s and post-traumatic stress disorder, among other conditions. The center, funded by private donors including hedge fund manager Steven Cohen’s foundation, is believed to be the world’s largest devoted to psychedelics, the Baltimore-based university said.

“The center’s establishment reflects a new era of research in therapeutics and the mind,” Roland Griffiths, the center’s director and a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, said in a statement.  The center will also “investigate creativity and well-being in healthy volunteers that we hope will open up new ways to support human thriving,” he said.

Venture capitalists have sunk $43 million so far this year into organizations exploring psychedelic science initiatives, roughly the same investment pace as last year, according to PitchBook.  For full year 2018, they invested almost $75 million in the sector. 

Most psychedelic drugs have been restricted in the U.S. since 1970 and no federal money can be used in their research. Even so, earlier this year the Food and Drug Administration approved Johnson & Johnson’s esketamine, a drug that produces psychedelic effects, for treatment-resistant depression patients, and is allowing studies of MDMA, known as “ecstasy,” as a treatmentfor post-traumatic stress disorder and of psilocybin as a treatment for major depression. That has generated optimism among medical researchers that a new dawn of treatments may be arriving.

Among the donors is the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation. Steven Cohen is the founder of hedge funds Point72 Asset Management and S.A.C. Capital Advisors. Other donors include Tim Ferriss, the author of the best-seller “The 4-Hour Workweek;” Matt Mullenweg, the co-founder of WordPress; Blake Mycoskie, founder of the shoe company TOMS; and Craig Nerenberg, co-founder of the former hedge fund Brenner West Capital Partners.

  • The center will build on research that Johns Hopkins has been doing since 2000, when it became the first organization to receive U.S. regulatory approval to reinitiate research with psychedelics in healthy volunteers who had never used them. The university’s researchers have had 60 peer-reviewed articles on psychedelics published since then.  
  • Some of the research will focus on psilocybin, the chemical found in so-called magic mushrooms. Researchers say the chemical can help reduce anxiety and depression. 
  • There has been a movement to decriminalize psychedelic drugs in the U.S. This summer both Denver and Oakland voted to allow the personal use and possession of drugs made from magic mushrooms.
  • Researchers continue to seek alternative routes to finding therapies. Fires in the Amazon rainforest have refocused attention on the possibilities for medical discovery in the region, which have barely been tapped. The many cures that have come out of the rainforest represent the tip of the iceberg with regard to medical possibilities.  
  • Karma Take: Psychedelic drugs may bring relief to a wide range of patients, and investors in health startups should be excited for the potential opportunities the field will unleash.