Vidi grant for psychedelics research Michiel van Elk
What exactly do psychedelics do in our brains? To investigate this, NWO has awarded a Vidi grant to Michiel van Elk. The Leiden cognitive psychologist talks about his proposal for serious research into a widespread social phenomenon. 'People describe experiences under the influence of psychedelics that have changed their lives.'
Michiel van Elk: 'My subject is socially relevant, that's how I approached it. Worldwide, people are using more and more psychedelics, both recreational and therapeutic, such as LSD and MDMA at parties, in psychedelic retreats, and during the lockdown in times of corona. In addition, there is increasing clinical research on psychedelics, showing that it is potentially useful for the treatment of depression, anxiety and addiction. However, we don't really understand factually how these substances work. '
What happens in the brain?
'We don't know at all what happens in our brain, what happens to our cognitive skills,' Van Elk continues. 'Can we still let someone drive a car or is perception completely disturbed? How long do those effects of psychedelics last? For many people, taking a psychedelic is a transformative experience, in the same category as marriage or your first child. But how exactly does it work that those experiences are so overwhelming? What is happening in the brain, what is happening in the psyche of the people who use psychedelics? '
God helmet and placebo effect
His proposal aims to investigate how this works. What are the mechanisms and how does the context play a role in the experience of these resources. 'When you say that you give someone LSD, many people already have associations with the 60s, with hippies. That already raises expectations very strongly. Are the experiences an effect of the drug or is it largely a placebo effect? Based on my research with the God helmet, we know that placebo effects and suggestion can have a very strong effect on the human experience. This probably also plays a major role in psychedelics, but that has hardly been studied systematically. '
Before Michiel van Elk started in Leiden this year, he spent eight years doing research and teaching at the UvA in Amsterdam. His Vidi was already in the pipeline and the subject ties in well with Cognitive Psychology and the education and research in Leiden. 'Brain and neurocognition is my research habitat and I can continue to do so here in Leiden.'
Van Elk enters his research into psychedelics in a partly new and unexplored territory - for him too. 'I don't have a lot of experience with doing psychopharmacological research yet. But I did research many related themes, such as mystical and psychic experiences, people being possessed, and placebo effects. Replication research and open science are also part of this project, with which I build on the expertise that I have gained in recent years. It is a thin balance, because at these types of individual talent grants you have to demonstrate that you are both capable and innovative. It is not the intention to repeat the same research trick again for 5 years. '
In-depth scientific research
His interest in psychedelics gained momentum after a sabbatical with a Fulbright scholarship at Stanford. There he came into contact with a group of enthusiastic psychedelics researchers. The subject seemed to be in the air, because on his return to the Netherlands he was invited to a fitting KNAW think tank. He also discovered that there is a gigantic network in this research field worldwide. 'I gradually became intrigued by people's stories and the impact it can have. At the same time, I am cautious and skeptical, because psychedelics now seem to help for everything, if you believe the media. That is why we must first conduct thorough scientific research to find out how these substances work. '
The Vidi grant from science financer NWO is based on the pillars of research, researcher and valorisation. 'The applicants are all good scientists with a good CV, otherwise you won't even get started applying,' says Van Elk. You have to be lucky with your reviewers, that they all find your proposal fun and exciting. With one vote less you are already behind. We all know that, but we still attach importance to it, because it is a lot of money, the subsidy is prestigious and important for your further career. ' The money is partly for his salary as a researcher, which means that he is partly free from other tasks, such as coordination, management and education. In addition, he is hiring 2 PhD students for 4 years for his new research group.