June 1, 2022

University recruits human behavioural pharmacologist to lead new research program

First Parker Psychedelic Research Chair joins UCalgary Oct. 1
Leah Mayo
Leah Mayo Anna Nilsen

The Hotchkiss Brain Institute and The Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research & Education at the University of Calgary are pleased to announce the recruitment of Dr. Leah Mayo, PhD, to the position of Parker Psychedelic Research Chair. Mayo will conduct research on the potential use of psychedelics to improve mental health.

"There's growing excitement around the potential use of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy for psychiatric disorders, but we still have a lot to learn,” says Mayo. “We need a better understanding of what these drugs are doing, which clinical populations stand to benefit the most from their use, and how to best implement them into clinical treatment."

Psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, MDMA (also known as ecstasy), and ketamine have potential to treat a variety of psychiatric disorders, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance use disorders (SUDs).

Leah Mayo

Anna Nilsen

“Dr. Mayo’s experience and body of research make her a perfect fit to lead our research into psychedelics,” says Dr. Valerie Taylor, MD, PhD, head of the Department of Psychiatry at the Cumming School of Medicine. “We’re very excited to have her join us. We need sound science and evidence-based decisions to help ensure novel therapies can be translated into clinical options.”

Research with psychedelic compounds is complicated, notes Mayo, but is worth the effort. Psychedelics present a unique challenge for research trials because it is difficult to conceal the substance people are being given.

“In many clinical drug trials study participants receive either the active medication or a placebo. However, it’s very obvious with psychedelics,” says Mayo, “Any research participant would know in short order whether they have a placebo, based on the subjective experience that psychedelics induce.”

Leah Mayo with her husband, Jonathan, and their children Luca and Ellis Murphy.

Leah Mayo with her husband, Jonathan Murphy, and their children Luca and Ellis.

KT Creative Photography

Beyond clinical trials, Mayo will also explore how psychedelics affect stress-related behaviours in people who are otherwise healthy. Studying the affects of drugs in a general population helps researchers understand how these drugs may affect behaviours relevant to various psychiatric conditions, highlighting the potential for new clinical treatments.

In June 2021, the chair was announced at the Mathison Centre, thanks to a generous $3-million donation from UCalgary alumnus, Jim Parker.

"The research that Dr. Mayo will be leading is key to realizing the enormous potential of psychedelics to alleviate suffering," says Parker.

The Parker Psychedelic Research Chair is a first of its kind in Canada, and will allow the Hotchkiss Brain Institute and UCalgary to be trailblazers of new and impactful research in brain and mental health. Mayo will commence her role as chair starting Oct. 1, 2022.

Brain and Mental Health Strategy

Led by the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, Brain and Mental Health is one of six strategic research themes guiding the university towards its Eyes High goals.

The Parker Psychedelic Research Chair is possible thanks to a $3-million commitment by alumnus Jim Parker, BA’90. The donation was made to The Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research and Education, which is housed within the Hotchkiss Brain Institute

Leah Mayo

Originally from Michigan, a descendent of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (Lake Superior Band of Chippewa Indians), Mayo joins the University of Calgary from the Center for Social and Affective Neuroscience at Linkoping University in Sweden, where she most recently held the position of assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical and Clinical Sciences. She recently received early career research accolades from the European Behavioral Pharmacology Society, the Society for Social Neuroscience, and the Society for Biological Psychiatry, and her previous work has been funded by the Brain & Behavior Foundation, the Swedish Research Council, and the Swedish Medical Society. You can find her on Twitter @MayoOnTheBrain