June 9, 2021

University of Calgary announces Parker Psychedelic Research Chair

Generous Calgarian steps forward to support research focusing on treatments for mental illness
Jim Parker
Courtesy: Jim Parker

The Parker Psychedelic Research Chair, the first of its kind in Canada, is possible thanks to a $3-million commitment by alumnus Jim Parker, BA’90, to The Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research and Education in the Hotchkiss Brain Institute. The Chair’s mandate is to conduct research on the potential use of psychedelics to improve mental health.

For Parker, the interest in this research is personal.

In 2017, Parker’s niece Courtney, then 21, diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), was paralyzed by flashbacks, terrified to leave her home, and unable to study for school. For over a year, she worked hard to get better with the help of her doctor and a trauma counsellor. Courtney was prescribed several medications but says she felt numbed, trapped by her own mind and unable to heal.

“I was very concerned about Courtney, and in 2018 I started reading the psychedelics-related research papers out of Johns Hopkins, Imperial College and others. The data was showing that psychedelics were providing benefits to people suffering from anxiety, depression, addiction and PTSD,” says Parker. “At that time there weren’t any options for this type of treatment in Canada, so we decided together on a clinic in California.”

Courtney received five rounds of intravenous ketamine therapy, precisely dosed under medical supervision. “They took me into a room with a chair and sleeping mask and headphones with spa music. The ketamine took me out of body — you’re able to see your trauma from a third-party perspective, which was really helpful,” says Courtney.

For the first time, I could see myself from a place of compassion. It was not easy to go through, but it was definitely beneficial.

In the past year, Courtney has been thriving, living a full and happier life. She is still working with her doctor and therapist and she has been able to stop taking many of the medications. She is scheduled to graduate with honours in Business Administration this spring and is eyeing a career in project management. She says she feels very lucky to have found something that worked well for her.

Inspiring change through philanthropy

Watching his niece flourish, Parker was inspired to try to help others. “I had read the research but to see first-hand how these treatments helped Courtney was amazing. I think the use of psychedelics has the potential to transform how we understand and treat mental health challenges,” says Parker. “We need research to better understand the safety and efficacy of these treatments in order to gain mainstream acceptance and maximize the benefits.”

The field of psychedelic research for mental health is rapidly growing with new studies emerging almost weekly, and growing interest from the scientific and medical communities. Ketamine, MDMA (ecstasy) and psilocybin, commonly known as magic mushrooms, have potential to treat depression, anxiety, PTSD and addiction. In the United States, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has granted psilocybin and MDMA “breakthrough therapy” status for depression and PTSD respectively. Building more clinical evidence with these substances will help to determine Canadian guidelines for dosing and how to get the most therapeutic benefit. 

Psilocybins, also known as magic mushrooms

Psilocybins, also known as magic mushrooms, may be an area of research focus for the Chair.

"The Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI) takes pride in being trailblazers of new and impactful research in brain and mental health. Psychedelics research presents an exciting new frontier, and the implementation of the Parker Psychedelic Research Chair positions HBI and the University of Calgary as leaders in this growing field,” says Dr. David Park, PhD, HBI director.

We are proud to be at the forefront of work to understand the therapeutic potential of these novel compounds. We need new treatments, and we need to employ sound scientific principles to this emerging new field, so we best know how to move forward,” says Dr. Valerie Taylor, MD, PhD, psychiatrist and Department of Psychiatry head, Cumming School of Medicine. “This is an exciting area and an avenue of study that is worth pursuing.”

An international candidate search for the Chair is underway.

Determining safe and effective use

Parker is also starting a private medical clinic, Bloom Psychedelic Therapy and Research Centre in Calgary, to provide a place where people can receive legal ketamine-assisted therapy and in future participate in research trials with other psychedelics. He believes research will be key for de-stigmatization and future government approval, as well as determining the safest and most effective way to use these compounds so one day, they may be regularly prescribed. “It’s going to change lives, many of them. It's exciting to be a part of it,” he says.

I'm so proud of my uncle for trying to make psychedelic treatment more accessible,” Courtney says.

While this is Parker’s largest gift to the university, it is not his only one — he is an avid supporter of men’s and women’s wrestling through the Parker Wrestling Athletic Award.

Get expert answers about psychedelic drug options in the treatment of mental illnesses at a June 25, 2021 event hosted by the Department of Psychiatry and the Mathison Centre at the University of Calgary.

Energized by our philanthropic community, we are creating lasting, positive change — on campus, in our city and beyond — by elevating student experiences, accelerating research outcomes and strengthening community connections

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.

Valerie Taylor is a professor and head of the Department of Psychiatry at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) at the University of Calgary. She is a member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute and The Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research and Education at the CSM.

David Park is a professor in the departments of Clinical Neurosciences and Cell Biology and Anatomy at the CSM at the University of Calgary, and director of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute at the CSM.