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Researchers at UNLV study psychedelic drugs for use in mental health

magic mushrooms
AP Photo/Peter Dejong, File

FILE - in this Aug. 3, 2007, file photo magic mushrooms are seen in a grow room at the Procare farm in Hazerswoude, central Netherlands.

Psychedelic drugs such as psilocybin, LSD and mescaline are illegal in most of the country, considered Schedule 1 drugs by the federal government.

On the flipside, shaman and other religious figures have long held these drugs, naturally occurring in mushrooms, tree bark and other plants, as part of sacred rituals.

For decades, most universities stayed away from research looking into the positive or negative impact of these drugs.

That’s changing. And researchers including those at UNLV are looking into the potential mental health application of these drugs.

Dr. Dustin Hines is one of the primary researchers of this at UNLV with his wife, Dr. Rochelle Hines and Ph.D candidate April Contreras. He said while most of the understanding we have of these substances stems from the 1960s, people who were understanding of them started about 10,000 years ago. 

As someone who has studied the brain his entire career, he said the state right now “is that we don’t know.”

Studies such as the work they’re conducting only started about five to 10 years ago, to understand how psychedelics change the brain and could be therapeutic. 

All of these substances are considered schedule 1 drugs, and the lab at UNLV is one of only a handful allowed to look at all of them.

Rochelle Hines said the process to start their work began with the Nevada State Board of Pharmacy, then the Drug Enforcement Agency. It’s a long process. 

“But for us, it's truly worth it to try to understand the substances,” she said.

There’s a stigma attached to using psychedelics for mental health, but Rochelle Hines said they’ve been interested in novel therapies for psychiatric disorders for most of their careers.

“We started hearing more and more about investigations into psychedelics, especially for end of life care,” she said. “We started to become really interested in how powerful these substances were, and really want to try to understand mechanistically, what their potential was for how they might be working on the brain.”

The team studies mice, and looks at their behavior and brain waves. 

Eventually, the goal is to use people, but currently they’re considered “pre-clinical.”

“This is giving us an idea of how the brain changes long term after administration of psychedelics,” said Contreras. 

She said they’ve been able to identify key hallmarks in the brain’s response. The waveforms they see indicate reestablishing connections across multiple brain areas.

“There's this idea that after you're given a psychedelic, these connections are being reformed again, you're rewiring the brain,” she said.

“These studies can be really on the brink of giving us a new knowledge that's been previously known and expertly used for hundreds of thousands of years, by people in Mesoamerica. And it can just propel novel therapies.”

Dustin Hines called the research “the coevolution of us and the earth and plants.”

“That’s a beautiful idea into itself that our brains and these plants all evolved at the same time and use the same receptors.”

They’re close to publishing a paper on their findings. 

“We just can't wait to keep doing this research and keep advancing UNLV in that way,” said Rochelle Hines.

Dustin Hines, associate professor, department of psychology, UNLV; Rochelle Hines, associate professor, department of psychology, UNLV, Las Vegas;  April Contreras, Ph.D student and research assistant, department of psychology, UNLV

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Christopher Alvarez is a news producer and podcast audio editor at Nevada Public Radio for the State of Nevada program, and has been with them for over a year.
Kristen DeSilva (she/her) is the audience engagement specialist for Nevada Public Radio. She curates and creates content for, our weekly newsletter and social media for Nevada Public Radio and Desert Companion.