Niks meer missen?
Schrijf je in voor onze nieuwsbrief!
Foto: Alex Katsarlinos

Students hungry for knowledge about psychedelics

Rinke Vreeke,
7 maart 2023 - 13:30

There is increasing attention at universities to a new field of research: psychedelic research. Rinke Vreeke attended a packed sold-out lecture on psychedelics at the Roeterseiland campus.

Kenan de Leeuw (26) slides his glasses a little further up his nose. He is nervous because in an hour he will open a lecture on psychedelics in the largest lecture hall on the Roeterseiland campus. Never before has he spoken before such a large audience. More than 650 tickets were sold.

Foto: Rebecca Bot
Kenan de Leeuw

Kenan de Leeuw

De Leeuw is president of the interdisciplinary study association Amsterdam Psychedelic Research Association (APRA). We follow him into the university building, where some 80 students are already lining up to get a seat. The reason for their presence varies widely. For example, 22-year-old student Tenzing tells us, “I am anti-drugs. I hope to broaden my horizons.” In contrast, 23-year-old Sarah is genuinely interested in perhaps working with psychedelics, a collective term for mind-altering drugs, later on. “I have no experience with psychedelics and am even a little afraid of them, so this class is like exposure therapy for me. Despite my fear, I am interested in doing research on the effects of psychedelics in the future.” Still other students talk about their recreational experience with psychedelics, and how they see substances like LSD and truffles as tools for personal growth or as rest and recovery in the context of sports.


No previous knowledge

When everyone is seated, De Leeuw kicks off. He tells the audience about the content of the lecture and his mission: to bridge the gap between the scientific field and college students with APRA. Then he poses a question to the audience: who in the curriculum has been taught about psychedelics? Only eight or nine hands go up. De Leeuw’s eyes begin to twinkle.

More and more research on psychedelics

Since the early 1990s, research on psychedelics, including drugs such as LSD and psilocybin (the psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms and truffles, among others), has been increasingly resumed. Meanwhile, there is evidence that therapies involving psychedelics are effective in treating various psychiatric conditions,including depression, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and addiction, according to the Dutch working group on therapeutic applications of psychedelics, consisting of scientists from several Dutch universities and teaching hospitals.

De Leeuw joined APRA in 2018 while still studying psychology at the VU. “Four or five years ago, I was given a course on psychopharmacology. Back then, there were already plenty of developments in the field of psychedelics. We were given a lecture on the diversity of drugs and stimulants. In the presentation, there were only two slides on psychedelics. Slides with a standard 1960s background with images of a kaleidoscope, a cactus, and some hippies. The lecturer said that substances like LSD and magic mushrooms were kind of a thing of the past. I was shocked.


De Leeuw has since become president of APRA and also works as a neuropsychologist at an outpatient neuropsychiatry clinic, where he treats people with noncongenital brain injuries. In his spare time, he organizes movie nights, symposiums, journal clubs, and lectures. The association now has about 120 members with students and alumni from all different of fields of study. Recently they also have their own student office and mailbox: “They asked me if we had drugs delivered secretly. At first, I laughed at that, but when we were also asked not to write out APRA completely on the mailbox, I realized that there was concern about our image within the university. Even though it is now a normal thing for me to talk about psychedelics, for many people and institutions there is still a stigma attached to it.”

“They asked me if we had drugs delivered secretly”
Josjan Zijlmans

Students in line

De Leeuw invited Amsterdam UMC researcher Josjan Zijlmans to deliver the lecture. Among other things, Zijlmans works at the VU, where he has been teaching the course Drugs that Alter your Mind: Neuroscience, History, and Therapeutic Potential of Psychedelics since 2019. Today he takes the audience through the breadth of the research field, as for many students this is a very first introduction to psychedelics. Zijlmans discusses the history of research on psychedelics and its effects and risks, as well as methodological issues and the social perception of drugs. For example, he discusses the “drug harms ranking” of British neuropsychopharmacologist David Nutt, a model that demonstrates that substances such as alcohol and tobacco are more harmful to public health and the individual than, for example, psychedelics.


Afterwards, there is a long line of students at Zijlmans. “The questions vary from how the therapies work to what dosages should be taken. But also questions about neurobiology and whether there are theories about how psychedelics work in the brain.” Zijlmans thinks the fact that students are curious is a positive development. According to him, universities have an important role to play in the developments surrounding psychedelics, whether it concerns research, the development of methods, or the eventual training of doctors and therapists specialized in psychedelics. In April, he will teach the course for the eighth time at VU. “More than 100 students have enrolled, but unfortunately there is only room for 30,” according to Zijlmans.


A new perspective in psychology

In Amsterdam, students are clearly curious about developments in psychedelic research. But it isn’t just the UvA and VU that are paying attention to the rapidly growing field of research. For example, the University of Groningen (RUG) is organizing the interdisciplinary summer school Psychedelic Research for the second time this year, in cooperation with the UMCG and seven other universities. Participants get acquainted with the latest developments in one week.

“The questions vary from how the therapies work to what dosages should be taken”

Maastricht University offers a third-year elective course on psychedelics: Psychedelic Medicine. University associate professor and psychopharmacologist Kim Kuypers developed the course in 2018. As in Amsterdam, more students apply each year than there is room, including students from other faculties. Kuypers says she thought about developing a master’s program on psychedelics but reconsidered: “I believe that we need to move toward a more holistic master’s, in which it’s about lifestyle in its breadth. So not only about psychedelics but also, for example, about the role of nutrition and exercise.”


Unlike Canada, for example, in the Netherlands there is as yet no prospect of amending the regulations regarding the medical use of psychedelics, although an exploratory Roundtable discussion took place in October 2022 on the therapeutic or medical use of psychedelics with the standing committee for Health, Welfare, and Sport. The expectation of the working group on therapeutic applications of psychedelics is that therapies with psychedelics will also become available in Europe within a few years. University education could grow along with this, according to Kuypers and Zijlmans.