Brain Health,

#196: Psychedelics vs. Inflammation with Dr. Charles Nichols

September 01, 2017

Psychedelics do the darnedest things.

Potent.  Mind-bending.  Illegal.  “A guaranteed, non-refundable ticket to a psychological environment that is very, very different.”

Psychedelics have never suffered from a lack of descriptors.  (Hallucinogens, entheogens, psychotomimetics — need we go on?)

One thing you probably don’t think of them as is an anti-inflammatory medicine.  Like aspirin or ibuprofen.

It turns out, there may be reason to.  The data is unequivocal if you’re a mouse, because the studies have already been conducted.  And Dr. Charles Nichols is working on extending this research into humans.

While the walls were melting, you may not have noticed…

Even among their fans, psychedelics aren’t the kind of substance that lend themselves to frequent use.  And that fact might explain why science hasn’t noticed their (apparently potent) anti-inflammatory properties until now.  When hallucinations, “mystical experiences,” and time dilation are on the docket, who is expected to notice a reduction in joint pain, or your chest feeling a little less asthmatic?

According to Dr. Nichols, these sorts of anecdotal reports from psychedelics users aren’t uncommon – but now that he’s pursuing this line of research, these comments more frequently come in the form of “actually, now that you mention it…” statements.  It’s just not front-of-mind for most people — if they notice at all.

But given that over 50-60% of people will suffer chronic inflammation as a disease mechanism at some point in their life, a potential therapy is extremely valuable.  And — better late than never — science is now actively seeking answers in this new area, with funding coming in from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as well as private disease foundations.

Interest is high.  Users need not be.

Researchers into psychedelics have frequently been hampered by the War on Drugs, a cultural wet blanket with influence that extends to the IRBs (Institutional Review Boards) that approve or disapprove the proposals made by would-be scientific investigators.

Dr. Nichols seems to be side-stepping psychedelics’ negative stigma quite effectively, though (something his father, Dr. David Nichols has done also).  In part, this is because studies into the anti-inflammatory potential of psychedelics has nothing to do with their “metaphysical” or psychological aspects.  Inflammation, it seems, can be fought at dose ranges so low that no psychedelic effects can be noticed.

(Of course, you can’t exactly ask a mouse if it is hallucinating, so researchers look for proxy behaviors.  But just like drunken teenagers who can’t hide their intoxication from their parents, tripping rodents are easily identified if you know what to look for.)

There remains much to learn.

Will the mouse studies translate up to humans?  Which psychedelic compounds pack the most anti-inflammatory punch — and carry the least unintended side effects?  And are there instances — such as clinical depression — where the psychological and physiological effects might be directly related, perhaps even complementary to each other?

Episode #196 presents a fascinating interview that hints at a major change in a therapeutic paradigm — but also asks at least as many questions as it answers.  Don’t trade in your asthma-inhaler for a few micrograms of LSD just yet…but keep an open mind.


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Oh, and because we promised:

The Bergen Work Addiction Scale

Consider your past year’s experiences, and choose your level of agreement with each of the following statements.  Give a 1 to statements that were never true in the past year, a 5 to statements that were always true, etc.

  • You think of how you can free up more time to work.
  • You spend much more time working than initially intended.
  • You work in order to reduce feelings of guilt, anxiety, helplessness or depression.
  • You have been told by others to cut down on work without listening to them.
  • You become stressed if you are prohibited from working.
  • You deprioritize hobbies, leisure activities, and/or exercise because of your work.
  • You work so much that it has negatively influenced your health.

If you gave a 4 (“often”) or 5 (“always”) in four or more of your responses, you categorize as a workaholic.  And yes, strangely, “workaholism” is the actual term they used in the study.

Read Full Transcript
Show Notes
  • 00:00:30

    Episode introduction: Psychedelics vs. Inflammation with Dr. Charles Nichols

  • 00:01:39

    This Week In Neuroscience: Workaholism and psychiatric disorders.

  • 00:03:48

    5-Star review shout-outs.

  • 00:04:26

    Smart Drug Smarts news and updates. AxonLabs back to school offer!

  • 00:05:20

    Check out Vitamonk!

  • 00:05:42

    Guest Introduction: Dr. Charles Nichols

  • 00:07:03

    Interview Begins

  • 00:07:05

    Dr. Nichols's background.

  • 00:10:15

    Potency of serotonin.

  • 00:12:15

    How Dr. Nichols came to study the effects of psychedelics on inflammation.

  • 00:13:10

    Tumor necrosis factor alpha.

  • 00:14:00

    Trying to identify the anti-inflammatory pathways of psychedelics.

  • 00:14:34

    Potential therapeutic options.

  • 00:15:45


  • 00:17:30

    Psychedelic half-lives.

  • 00:19:15

    Enzymes and drug metabolism.

  • 00:20:20

    The current status of the therapeutic use of psychedelics for inflammation.

  • 00:21:00

    Potential roadblocks.

  • 00:25:15

    Pharmaceutical index.

  • 00:26:30

    FDA approved psychedelic.

  • 00:28:24

    Political climate of psychedelic research.

  • 00:29:58

    Prevalence of inflammation issues in the population.

  • 00:30:46

    Potential crossovers of anti-inflammatory effects and psychedelic effects.

  • 00:33:40

    Goals for future studies.

  • 00:34:20

    Psychedelic exposure and epigenetic changes.

  • 00:34:50

    What defines a crazy rat?

  • 00:36:17

    Brain regions activated.

  • 00:39:00

    How long do epigenetic changes from psychedelic exposure last?

  • 00:40:00

    Psychedelics and increased openness.

  • 00:41:11

    Interview wrap-up.

  • 00:42:10

    Ruthless Listener Retention Gimmick: A positive finding about how alcohol can affect the brain.

  • 00:46:04

    Episode wrap-up.


  1. Sage says:

    Hello, I am interested in sending Dr. Charles Nichols an email regarding the podcast on inflammation. I was recently in the hospital for optical neuritis, an inflamed nerve connecting my eye to the brain. If it is possible to send me his contact info I would appreciate it.

    1. Alexa Magnon says:

      Hi Sage,

      Dr. Nichols’s contact information can be found on the following page:

      Hope this is helpful!

  2. Valerie Swiger says:

    I am interested in the potential to help with Restless Leg Syndrome..I have been tortured with it for over 30yrs. after five major spine operations…I do not take pain meds of anykind…was recently prescribed Requip..a medication usually used to treat Parkinson’s…I understand that inflammation is a big part of RLS…do you know if this might help??

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