David Olson, assistant professor of chemistry, in his lab, speaking with Alaysia Madison, a chemistry student visiting from Xavier University.
David Olson (left), associate professor of chemistry, in his lab speaking with Alaysia Madison, a chemistry student visiting from Xavier University, in August 2018.

$2.7M Awarded to UC Davis To Find New Addiction Treatments Related to Psychedelics

Evidence from human and animal testing suggests the brain-altering effects of psychedelics could be repurposed for treating addiction. 

Now, researchers at University of California, Davis, and the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus plan to screen hundreds of compounds to discover new, non-hallucinogenic treatments for substance use disorders. The research is funded by a $2.7 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health.

Previous work has shown psychedelic drugs can rewire parts of the brain involved in depression, substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder. David Olson, associate professor in the departments of Chemistry and Biochemistry & Molecular Medicine at UC Davis, is searching for similar effects among compounds without the hallucinogenic effects of drugs like LSD. He calls these compounds psychoplastogens, for their ability to modify the brain.

“I’m very excited that NIDA is recognizing the potential that psychoplastogens might have for patients with substance use disorders,” Olson said. “This grant will help us to understand the basic mechanisms by which these compounds impact addiction, and hopefully develop more effective and better tolerated treatments.”

Olson’s work is part of a growing focus on psychedelics research at UC Davis and UC Davis Health. His lab has synthesized hundreds of molecules related to psychedelics in the search for new drug therapies. One such molecule, tabernanthalog (TBG), produces both rapid and sustained anti-addictive effects in rodent models of heroin and alcohol self-administration. 

The research will include mechanistic studies to understand how TBG impacts addiction and the development of new compounds with psychoplastogenic effects, he said. The team will use high-throughput screening to test for efficacy, safety and treatment potential. Promising compounds will undergo additional animal testing at CU Anschutz.

Delix Therapeutics, a startup founded by Olson, is also investigating non-hallucinogenic psychoplastogens for treating depression, anxiety and related disorders but is not involved in the project.

— Becky Oskin, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science

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