‘There is a need for something new’: Applications open for UW-Madison’s psychoactive drug treatment master’s program

MADISON, Wis. – Whether you’ve been infected or not, the coronavirus can leave its mark.

Reports of depression and anxiety went up six fold during the pandemic, according to Boston College researchers.

“The pandemic has really caused the burden of negative mental health outcomes to skyrocket,” said Cody Wenthur, an assistant professor of pharmacy at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. “We have a real need for new therapeutics and increased access to the effective treatments we already have.”

Though they’ve been exacerbated by the pandemic, mental disorders are nothing new, and neither is the fight against them.

“We have tens of thousands of Americans unfortunately dying from overdoses each year, more tens of thousands dying from suicide,” Wenthur said. “It’s a huge burden at this point. I would like to be part of the solution to bring that to an end.”

Wenthur and his lab study compounds and their long-term effects on the brain, may it be the negative effects of alcohol and opioids or the positive effects of psychoactive drugs such as psychedelics that can be used in therapy.

“There is a need for something new,” said Zarmeen Zahid, a second-year PhD student who works in Wenthur’s lab. “Watching people I love go through this and understanding it from a human perspective has made me more dedicated as a scientist to getting down to the root of the problem.”

“We do have current therapies effective for depression, PTSD,” Wenthur said. “Unfortunately, they only help about half of people.”

So they’re going beyond the usual. Wenthur is the director of UW-Madison’s new Pyschoactive Pharmaceutical Investigation program, the only master’s program of its kind in the country, according to the university.

UW-Madison launches Psychoactive Pharmaceutical Investigation program

The program will teach scientists to deliver psychoactive substances such as psychedelics and cannabinoids in a therapeutic setting.

The program, which can be taken fully online, aims to prepare students to be leaders in the field, which is only expected to grow.

Studies already take place at UW-Madison administering psilocybin, the psychedelic property found in magic mushrooms, in a safe space under supervision.

“We hypothesize it is these pro-neuroplastic effects of psilocybin, the ability for psilocybin to really change the way the brain talks to itself,” Zahid said.

Wenthur explained people who are depressed often get stuck in old patterns.

“These psychedelics can go in the brain, loosen connections and forge new connections when given together with psychotherapy,” he said.

Studies have shown psychedelics helping with disorders such as PTSD and alcohol dependence. MDMA, also known as ecstasy or Molly, is getting closer to clinical approval as clinical trials continue.

“We were seeing results that were, for lack of a better word, incredible,” Zahid said.

“When we look at analyses for psychedelics vs. traditional antidepressants, the effect size is about three to four fold greater,” Wenthur said. “It also occurs within days rather than weeks to months, and interestingly fascinatingly, it persists for periods of up to six months after one or two doses.”

Of course, there are still barriers. Though Wenthur said it seems the tide is turning, many psychoactive drugs are not cleared by the FDA, and the stigma remains. While psychedelic drugs don’t pose a risk of overdose, Wenthur said the biggest danger they guard against is anxiety, or bad trips. They also don’t like to give the drugs to people who have a history or family history of psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia.

“I think it’s fair to be skeptical,” Wenthur said. “As a scientist, it’s our job to be skeptical.”

That’s why he’s focused on following the science.

“If it goes well, I think we will certainly see a change in psychiatry,” Wenthur said. “The important thing, though, is to make sure we keep a level head and get the right data to show it is effective and it is safe in the patients we’re hoping to help.”

If the data shows psychoactive drugs helping lift the burden of mental health issues, Wenthur said that’s not something we can ignore.

“Recognize the burden of mental health issues in this country is growing and we should be looking for things to help improve the lives of all our fellow citizens,” he said.

Students can apply for the 31-credit program for fall enrollment by July 31 or for spring enrollment by Oct. 31. Students can also earn a 12-credit capstone certificate. Doctor of Pharmacy students can also enroll.