David Nutt

Advocate, Scientist

Dr. David Nutt is a faculty member in the Department of Medicine of the Imperial College London, UK. He is also the Edmond J. Safra Chair in Neuropsychopharmacology and the director of the Neuropsychopharmacology Unit in the Division of Brain Sciences. His writing credits include over 400 original research papers, eight government reports on drugs, and 27 books. He started work as a clinical scientist and medical researcher after graduating from Downing College, Cambridge in 1972. Dr. Nutt also serves on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Beckley Foundation.

Pioneering Research

Nutt studies the effects of drugs on the brain and on conditions like anxiety, addiction, and sleep. His early research interests centered around benzodiazepine receptor complexes in the central nervous system. He published a ground-breaking paper in Nature in 1982 on a new type of receptor function he discovered which he calls contragonism and it launched his career.1

Changing Drug Policy

Over the years, he has been active in helping to dispel myths about illegal drugs including psychedelics. In addition, he campaigns for changes in UK drug laws, particularly to allow more research opportunities. In 2017, Nutt gave a TEDx Talk on how illegal drugs can help the brain.

In 2007, Nutt published a controversial and highly cited study in The Lancet on a new rational scale he developed to assess the harm caused by drug misuse and abuse.2 When he compared the data from his  analysis to the current UK drug classifications, the differences were striking particularly for psychedelics.

His paper challenged the current UK drug classification system which he says is vague, inconsistent and, “…reduces confidence in their [risk analysis] accuracy and undermines health education messages.” In the aftermath of this publication, Nutt was fired from his position on the UK Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) in 2010 and several other members resigned in protest. Undeterred, Nutt partnered with some of his resigned colleagues and founded the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs (ISCD) which brings together leading drug experts to conduct research on the effects and harms caused by drugs.

Nutt and the ISCD continued their mission by publishing their findings from another study in The Lancet in 2010.3 They laid out a new model for scoring and ranking the harm caused by specific drugs to the user and society. Their analysis ranked crack, heroin, and methamphetamine most harmful to users. Alcohol was found to be the most harmful to society, ranking far above heroin and crack. Nutt and his colleagues say their model is superior to the UK classification system because it separates the drugs more effectively based on the harm they cause to people and society.

Understanding How Psilocybin Works

Nutt has contributed significantly to the knowledge base on how psilocybin affects the brain and its therapeutic use in mood disorders. Specifically, he helped identify where and how psilocybin works in the brain to bring on the psychedelic state 4–6 and studied its use in treatment-resistant depression 7,8 and psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy.9 He also participated in work that used psilocybin to help understand the development of early psychosis.10

More information on Dr. Nutt and his work is found on his LinkedIn profile, his faculty page at Imperial College London, his WordPress blog, and his Twitter feed.

Barb Bauer Headshot

Barb is the former Editor and one of the founders of Psychedelic Science Review. She is currently a contributing writer. Her goal is making accurate and concise psychedelic science research assessable so that researchers and private citizens can make informed decisions.

  1. Nutt DJ, Cowen PJ, Little HJ. Unusual interactions of benzodiazepine receptor antagonists. Nature. 1982;295(5848):436-438. doi:10.1038/295436a0
  2. Nutt D, King LA, Saulsbury W, Blakemore C. Development of a rational scale to assess the harm of drugs of potential misuse. The Lancet. 2007;369(9566):1047-1053. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(07)60464-4
  3. Nutt DJ, King LA, Phillips LD. Drug harms in the UK: a multicriteria decision analysis. The Lancet. 2010;376(9752):1558-1565. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(10)61462-6
  4. Muthukumaraswamy SD, Carhart-Harris RL, Moran RJ, et al. Broadband Cortical Desynchronization Underlies the Human Psychedelic State. J Neurosci. 2013;33(38):15171-15183. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2063-13.2013
  5. Carhart-Harris RL, Williams TM, Sessa B, et al. The administration of psilocybin to healthy, hallucinogen-experienced volunteers in a mock-functional magnetic resonance imaging environment: a preliminary investigation of tolerability. J Psychopharmacol. 2011;25(11):1562-1567. doi:10.1177/0269881110367445
  6. Carhart-Harris RL, Erritzoe D, Williams T, et al. Neural correlates of the psychedelic state as determined by fMRI studies with psilocybin. PNAS. 2012;109(6):2138-2143. doi:10.1073/pnas.1119598109
  7. Carhart-Harris RL, Roseman L, Bolstridge M, et al. Psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression: fMRI-measured brain mechanisms. Scientific Reports. 2017;7(1):13187. doi:10.1038/s41598-017-13282-7
  8. Carhart-Harris RL, Bolstridge M, Rucker J, et al. Psilocybin with psychological support for treatment-resistant depression: an open-label feasibility study. The Lancet Psychiatry. 2016;3(7):619-627. doi:10.1016/S2215-0366(16)30065-7
  9. Carhart-Harris RL, Leech R, Williams TM, et al. Implications for psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy: functional magnetic resonance imaging study with psilocybin. The British Journal of Psychiatry. 2012;200(3):238-244. doi:10.1192/bjp.bp.111.103309
  10. Carhart-Harris RL, Leech R, Erritzoe D, et al. Functional Connectivity Measures After Psilocybin Inform a Novel Hypothesis of Early Psychosis. Schizophr Bull. 2013;39(6):1343-1351. doi:10.1093/schbul/sbs117