• Interview

Interview – How the HBP has deepened collaboration among research groups

18 September 2023

An interview with Gitte Knudsen on the potential of psychedelics, the biggest challenges in the field and how the HBP has not only fostered interdisciplinary collaboration but - in her view, more importantly – trust among researchers.

Gitte Moos Knudsen is a professor at the University of Copenhagen and the chair of the Human Brain Project Science and Infrastructure Advisory Board (SIAB). We spoke to her about psychedelics and neuropharmacology.

She studies the influence of drugs on the brain, in order to predict which patients are going to benefit from certain interventions. At her research laboratory, Knudsen and her team are currently investigating the effects of psilocybin and other psychedelics. Just one single dose of these compounds can have lasting effects on the brain, which makes them good candidates for the treatment of conditions such as depression.

Gitte Moos Knudsen, chair of the Human Brain Project Science and Infrastructure Advisory Board (SIAB)

We usually think of psychedelics as party drugs, or something that's not necessarily used for therapeutic use. What do you wish the general public knew more about what you're working on?
It's important for the public to know that today we have research tools that allow us to investigate the brain in a much more thorough manner than we used to. And psychedelics are a field that interestingly has divided people a lot. I've found either people tend to think that psychedelics can cure everything and are the answer to virtually any brain disorder, or they are very scared of the thought of using psychedelics for any kind of therapeutic purpose.

At what point has the research into psychedelics become something you were curious about?

In my career, I've always worked with the serotonin system of the brain. In my lab, we have studied the brain serotonin system for 20 years or so, and one of the receptors that we were particularly interested in is the serotonin 2A receptor. We have developed a particular agonist radioligand, which means that we can image that receptor in humans while they're still alive in a fairly non-invasive manner. And, as it turns out, these classical psychedelics work by stimulating the serotonin 2A receptor. So, it was quite a natural development for me to study psychedelics.

What does success look like in your field? What would you say has been a huge achievement or what might be a wonderful practical outcome of your research?

A wonderful outcome of my research (and also of other people's research) is precision medicine, where we can predict and treat patients according to their individuality. We people are completely different; we have a different genetic makeup, we have different environmental influences that make us prone to not responding to interventions – which could be drugs, psychotherapy, or some sort of external stimulation. That is one of the key challenges we have when it comes to brain disorders. On a higher-level perspective, I would say that our largest challenge now is to understand the brain even better: how it functions, how the different parts of the brain work together. And I think we are getting better and better tools for investigating the brain.

What is the importance of synergies between scientists working in different fields? Is this cross-collaboration important in order to have the sort of breakthroughs you would like to see?

I think there is a high need for interdisciplinarity, and interdisciplinarity means that people have different backgrounds; they can do different things. For instance, in my lab we have psychologists, engineers, medical doctors, pharmacologists, people who know about imaging, etc. That is an important aspect of doing science today. But I think what is just as important is to have a collaboration with the scientists who are working on topics that are related to your own field. I think the importance of the Human Brain Project has also been to establish not just the collaboration as such, but the trust that you can cultivate in such a big project. You cultivate trust between research groups that you know you can turn to if you have difficulties with your project, or if you need good advice, or if perhaps the other group has a better technology that could help your research question evolve. 

If I had a magic wand, and there was no restriction on funding or resources, is there a particular research question that you would like to tackle further, or a new direction you would like to go in?

I think that pursuing the effects of drugs in the brain and neurotransmission, those are the big main areas that are interesting. In particular, psychedelics, because of their impact on consciousness. Understanding how pharmaceutical influences like psychedelics can all of a sudden change the brain in a more permanent manner is a really important research question that I think is worthwhile to pursue.

Listen to an extended version of this interview below: