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Psychedelic drugs for treatment of mental illness focus of U of C research chair


CALGARY — 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.

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."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 9, 2021.

Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: In previous version, Taylor said the treatment is not available in Canada.

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