Psychedelic Science

DMT crystals

As more states move to legalize psychoactive drugs, there’s growing interest from consumers and drug makers seeking to treat mental and physical aches and pains. But the popularity is moving ahead of the science — a problem researchers in the Department of Chemistry plan to fix.

“There’s that saying, that the difference between a medicine and a poison is the dose,” said Assistant Professor David Olson.

Olson investigates microdosing — taking tiny amounts of psychedelic drugs to boost mood and battle mental disorders. Some people self-treat by microdosing, ingesting small amounts of LSD, mushrooms, or other hallucinogenic drugs every three or four days without inducing a trip. Olson’s group provided the first evidence in rodents that psychedelic microdosing could have therapeutic effects. Microdosing helped rats overcome a “fear response” in a test relevant to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, the researchers also documented potential risks: the dosing regimen significantly increased body weight in male rats, for example. 

Photo of UC Davis chemist with student in lab
Faculty member David Olson, left, mentors a visiting student. 

Another chemist, Professor Mark Mascal, has created a synthetic, nonintoxicating version of cannabidiol (CBD) and showed that it is as effective as CBD from marijuana in treating seizures in rats. “It’s a much safer drug than CBD, with no abuse potential,” he said.

The synthetic molecule, 8,9-dihydrocannabidiol (H2CBD), has a similar structure to CBD. Mascal’s laboratory devised a simple, inexpensive method to make H2CBD from commercially available chemicals. The synthetic CBD alternative is easier to purify than a plant extract and could avoid legal complications with cannabis-related products, he said. Mascal is working with colleagues at the UC Davis School of Medicine to carry out more studies in animals with a goal of moving into clinical trials soon. 

Becky Oskin, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science, wrote this article for the fall 2019 issue of the College of Letters and Science Magazine