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.
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