Sheppard Pratt’s Center of Excellence is a research facility and innovation lab housed within The Institute for Advanced Diagnostics and Therapeutics. Our researchers are generating evidence to shape transformational new mental healthcare models, training and certifying therapists in these protocols, and conducting clinical trials including proof of concept studies to improve patient experiences and outcomes. 

What is the aim of the Center of Excellence? 

With the Center of Excellence, Sheppard Pratt solidifies our place as a leader in the clinical understanding and development of psychedelic treatment protocols for psychiatrically ill populations. Our goal is to look not merely at clinical outcomes, but at why these transformational changes are occurring. Our efforts are two-fold: to provide novel therapeutic avenues for patients with few other options and to understand the specific causes of their outcomes. 

We are focused on people who have failed multiple other treatment options in a current episode of their illness. Studies being conducted at the Center of Excellence have shown patients—long classified as treatment-resistant—to have measurable positive responses to novel psychedelic protocols. 

“This is a paradigm shift,” says Scott Aaronson, MD, chief science officer and director of clinical research at Sheppard Pratt. The Center of Excellence is challenging the label of “treatment-resistant” illnesses. “Treatment resistant according to who?” Dr. Aaronson says. “Based on existing treatments? Those are not the end of the story.” 

Why are we engaging in this research? 

For decades following the use and abuse of psychedelics in the 1960s, psychiatry kept a distance from the study of psychedelics as a treatment option. But over the last 20 years, it has reemerged in an incredibly promising way. Sheppard Pratt’s study on the effects of psilocybin on treatment-resistant bipolar II was a huge step forward. Participants have exhibited persistent positive effects. 

The Center of Excellence is interested in studying the root of psychiatric disorders—not just the symptoms. Therapeutic psychedelic treatments are helping patients reach psychological resolutions that create lasting changes in their thought patterns and behaviors. Most psychiatric medications help patients control and manage symptoms, and they require long term adherence. The novel approaches we are researching at the Center of Excellence contain the promise of short-term treatment with long-lasting gains. 

What does the future look like for the Center of Excellence?

The Institute for Advanced Diagnostics and Therapeutics is at the forefront of the field in developing novel treatments for psychiatric illness. Housed within the institute, the Center of Excellence has become a hub of psychedelic research. The field of psychedelic study is moving rapidly. Our researchers want to understand how to use these treatments with maximum efficacy, as well as what the outcomes look like over weeks, months, and years. And, we will use our research on psychedelics as a framework to support the clinical applications of new interventions, as they become possible.

The Center of Excellence is currently investigating a growing number of difficult-to-treat illnesses including chronic depression, eating disorders, substance use, PTSD, and more.

What makes the Center of Excellence at Sheppard Pratt the best place for this research? 

Sheppard Pratt is the largest private, nonprofit provider of mental healthcare in the country. We not only have a large patient population, but we see some of the most difficult cases. The Center of Excellence seeks specifically to help people who have historically not been able to find relief and to offer them a chance at a new approach and new story. 

To do this kind of work, researchers need institutional support. Sheppard Pratt’s leadership is committed to making us a leader in clinical care and expanding our research footprint to move the field forward. At this critical time, the Center of Excellence, and Sheppard Pratt as an institution, are fully invested in cutting-edge treatments for mental illness.

Our lead researchers

Scott Aaronson, MD is a thought leader in the areas of biological psychiatry, diagnosis, and the integration of somatic and psychological therapies. Dr. Aaronson is the chief science officer of the Sheppard Pratt Institute for Advanced Diagnostics and Therapeutics and the director of clinical research programs. He is a distinguished psychopharmacologist and an expert in neurostimulation and leads trials encompassing severe difficult to treat mood disorders, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and more. At the Center of Excellence, he is focused on the development of uses for psychedelic medications across the spectrum of psychiatric illness.

Matthew Johnson, PhD, senior researcher at the Center of Excellence, has more than 20 years of experience working with psychedelics in psychiatrically ill populations. He is one of the field’s most accomplished scientists on the human effects of psychedelics and has conducted research with all major classes of drugs of abuse. He has conducted seminal research in the behavioral economics of drug use, addiction, and risk behavior. His psychedelics trials have explored the effects of psychedelics on mystical experience, personality change, cancer distress treatment, and depression treatment. Dr. Johnson pioneered the use of psilocybin to treat tobacco addiction. With this line of research, he received as principal investigator the first US federal grant to administer a psychedelic as a therapeutic in a half century.

Institutional support was a major consideration when Dr. Johnson joined the team at the Center of Excellence, a facility distinguished by its ability, expertise, and interest in diving into the toughest cases. Sheppard Pratt prides itself on the ability to react agilely to a rapidly shifting environment. Our institutional structure moves research safely and effectively along the path toward treatment at a speed critically important in this industry. The Center of Excellence combines world-renowned researchers with clinical efficiency to stay on the cutting edge of advancing treatments for the most difficult to treat illnesses in psychiatry.