Drugs that alter your mind: neuroscience, history, and therapeutic potential of psychedelics

Academic year
Mondays, 2 Thursday nights (9 and 16 April) and 1 full Saturday (2 May)
Mondays and Thursdays 18.00-20.30       Saturday 2 May 10.00-15.30
Number of meetings    
Dates of all meetings
30 March, 6, 9, 16, 20 April, 2, 11, 18 May 2020
Vrije Universiteit, De Boelelaan 1105, 1081 HV Amsterdam
will be announced later
  • Drs. Josjan Zijlmans (coordinator), Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, VUmc; [email protected]
  • Prof. dr. Eric Vermetten, Psychiatry, Leiden University Medical Center
  • Prof. Dr. Gemma Blok, Cultural Sciences, Open University
  • Dr. Michiel van Elk, Social Psychology, University of Amsterdam
  • Drs. Noah van Dongen, Philosophy of Science, University of Turin

Psychedelics have had a turbulent past. They have been hailed as miracle drugs, capable of relieving any psychiatric illness, but also as wildly dangerous. The psychiatrist Stanislav Grof famously put it: “the potential significance of LSD and other psychedelics for psychiatry and psychology is comparable to the value the microscope has for biology or the telescope has for astronomy.” A score of research in the 1950s and 1960s was performed on how psychedelics can be used to treat depression, trauma, and addiction, but after a major cultural shift all psychedelics research became outlawed. Now, 40 years later, researchers are again looking at the therapeutic value of these drugs, of which some remain illegal (e.g. MDMA, LSD), but others not (e.g. “magic truffles”). Especially MDMA has gained clinical interest since the US Food and Drug Administration has granted Breakthrough Therapy Designation to MDMA for the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), speeding up particularly promising research.

This course will introduce the student to the emerging, interdisciplinary field of psychedelics. From a scientific perspective, it will address the scientific history of psychedelics, effects and risks, the neurobiological and psychological function of psychedelics, and advances and methodological problems in modern research into therapeutic potential. From a social perspective, it will address psychedelics’ cultural history, their current recreational use, social and political perception, and their legal status. As both recreational and medicinal use of psychedelics are controversial topics, students are encouraged and assisted in critically assessing both research and practice.

Learning outcomes

  • after the course, students will have acquired knowledge on:
  • effects of cultural changes on psychedelic policy and research;
  • current psychedelic culture and law;
  • the basic neurobiological and psychological function of psychedelics;
  • current research into psychedelic use and its therapeutic benefits;
  • critical assessment of psychedelics research.

Study materials

  • Research articles
  • Video’s and popular articles
  • Recommended reading
  • How to change your mind by Michael Pollan
  • LSD my problem chid by Albert Hoffman

Working formats and activities

Lectures, writing individually and in groups of three, peer presentation, organized trip to a scientific conference on Psychedelics in Amsterdam

Assessment methods

Students are evaluated on an individual essay (50%), a group-based research plan (35%), and presentation of the research plan (15%).