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Profiles In Badassery: Dr. David E. Nichols

Are you really seeing this image? Only Dr. Nichols can tell you.
Are you really seeing this image? Only Dr. Nichols can tell you.

When I was looking for a subject of the first Profile in Badassery for 2011 I was pretty shocked by the background of current Purdue professor David E. Nichols. This guy works in the field of medicinal chemistry and pharmacology, so he can relate to my father's background. What makes him so fascinating, and the subject of one of the most bizarre Profiles in Badassery, is his specialty.

You see, Dr. Nichols is a specialist in psychedelics. You can make all the jokes you want about him getting his Ph.D from the University of Iowa (with all their recent football drug problems) and his expertise in psychedelics, but just imagine the trouble Iowa would have if he had stayed in Iowa City. Instead of a dabbling in a yayo the players would be tripping out on the field and trying to eat the officials because they thought they were a plate of croissants.

Dr. Nichols currently is the Robert C. and Charlotte P. Anderson Distinguished Chair in Pharmacology at Purdue. He has over 40 years of experience in working with psychoactive drugs. That is long enough for him to have seen the Cubs win a World Series even if it didn't happen. Among pharmacologists, he is considered to be one of the world's top experts on psychedelics.


Dr. Nichols earned his undergrad degree from the University of Cincinnati in 1969 before earning his Ph.D from Iowa in 1973. He has been working with psychedelics since 1969 and the Summer of Love. given the social background at the time, it is not hard to imagine where his interest in these drugs came from.

Most of his work involves rats, but with over 40 years in the field I am sure he has seen some interesting reactions. Since his research involves seeing things that aren't really there, he might know the secret as to why Notre Dame and Indiana think they are still powers in football and basketball, respectively.

Most of his research is very technical, but he has earned a reputation as being among the best in his field worldwide. Therefore, if you're ever tripping balls, he can tell you exactly why you are tripping balls. This writer has never advocated that though, now have I ever indulged in such substances. I am high strung enough as it is. I don't need to be flipping out about stuff that isn't there.

Nichols' work:

For more on Nichols work, here is a section from his biography at Purdue:

The general thrust of the work in our laboratory could be characterized as the development of molecular probes to understand the role of brain monoamine neurotransmitters in normal behavior. Although molecular biology has made great strides in providing information about structural and functional aspects of the brain, those studies must be complemented through the use of specifically designed molecules that are directed toward particular biological targets. In an academic sense, such molecules are useful in gaining fundamental information about neuronal function. When one of them has high efficacy and low toxicity, however, it may become a drug candidate.

We have a particular focus on brain systems that utilize dopamine or serotonin as the neurotransmitter. In the former case, we are interested in molecular probes that have specificity for only one of the five general types of dopamine receptors (D1 - D5). Our efforts to date have led to several novel series of molecules that are full efficacy agonists at the dopamine D1 receptor subtype. One of these (named Dihydrexidine) showed remarkable efficacy in an animal model of late stage Parkinson's disease. A second-generation compound named dinapsoline has properties similar to dihydrexidine. Dinapsoline now has also shown dramatic efficacy in both rodent and primate models of Parkinson's disease. Recently we have developed yet a third series of related compounds based around a prototype named dinoxyline that is a sort of "universal" dopamine agonist. By appropriate structural modifications, these different templates have led to molecules with specificity for the D2 or D3 dopamine receptor isoforms.

Basically, he does the research on how certain psychedelic substances can help the brain, as opposed to make you think you're a glass of orange juice. Here is some video from a special he did:


Here is more from his work:

Many different names have been proposed over the years for this drug class. The famous German toxicologist Louis Lewin used the name phantastica earlier in this century [Lewin, 1964], and as we shall see later, such a descriptor is not so farfetched. The most popular names, hallucinogen, psychotomimetic, and psychedelic ("mind manifesting"; [Osmond, 1957]), have often been used interchangeably.

There is only a meager amount of factual information about hallucinogenic drugs among the general public today. Furthermore, in the scientific and medical communities, where one expects to find expertise on drugs, there is now a whole generation who knows almost nothing about hallucinogens other than the fact that they are subject to the strictest legal controls applied to any class of pharmacological agents

Despite their high degree of physiological safety and lack of dependence liability, hallucinogens have been branded by law enforcement officials as among the most dangerous drugs that exist, being placed into Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. Depending on the locale, especially in the United States, punishments for using or distributing drugs like LSD are often more draconian than if the user had committed a violent crime. Although there is a common perception that Schedule I drugs are particularly dangerous, the 3-pronged test for placement of a drug into schedule I requires only that (1) the drug has no currently accepted medical use in the United States, (2) there is a lack of safety for use of the drug under medical supervision, and (3) the substance has a high "potential for abuse."

What is it, exactly, that makes these pharmacological curiosities so fearsome? The answer lies, in large measure, beyond hard science and within a complex sociological and political agenda that surround psychedelics, which is well outside the scope of this review. Nevertheless, a very brief discussion of the history and background of these unique substances is warranted to provide a little insight into how this situation arose.

Naturally occurring hallucinogenic drugs played a significant role in the development of philosophy and religious thought in many earlier cultures. One can argue persuasively that hallucinogenic drugs might have been catalysts for the development of humankind's earliest philosophies and theologies. How many Neolithic hunters, one might wonder, eking out an existence in the wild, were likely to sit before the fire at night contemplating the nature of man and the meaning of life? By contrast, if the same group had discovered and ingested some hallucinogenic mushrooms, they would be compelled to confront and would surely have discussed and attempted to understand the nature of their otherworldly mushroom-induced encounters. Assuming that their neurochemistry was not so different from ours today, those occurrences would have been well beyond the bounds of their everyday experiences and vocabulary. They could easily have concluded that these plants were "the residences of divinities or other spiritual forces" [Schultes & Hofmann, 1979].

The late Daniel X. Freedman, one of the great pioneers of LSD research, made comments consistent with that assessment, stating, " basic dimension of behavior...compellingly revealed in LSD states is "portentousness"-the capacity of the mind to see more than it can tell, to experience more than it can explicate, to believe in and be impressed with more than it can rationally justify, to experience boundlessness and "boundaryless" events, from the banal to the profound." [Freedman, 1968]. It might be noted in this context that one doctoral dissertation has even provided evidence that psilocybin-induced mystical-religious experiences could not be distinguished, by objective criteria, from spontaneously occurring ones [Pahnke, 1963].

It should be apparent from the foregoing discussion that hallucinogens have a unique and powerful ability to affect the human psyche. They may alter one's concepts of reality, may change one's views on life and death, and can provoke and challenge one's most cherished beliefs. Therein, this writer believes, lay the roots of much of the fear and hysteria that these substances have fostered in our society.

So yes, Dr. Nichols wants to remove the fear from psychedelics. He is proudly Purdue in that he is the best in his field, and he has taught generations of Purdue students the benefits of psychedelics. I certainly do not advocate the use of trippy drugs like LSD, but if that is your thing, thank the badass that is Dr. David E. Nichols.