The ‘PSILAUT’ protocol: an experimental medicine study of autistic differences in the function of brain serotonin targets of psilocybin

Tobias P. Whelan, Eileen Daly, Nicolaas A. Puts, Paula Smith, Carrie Allison, Simon Baron-Cohen, Ekaterina Malievskaia, Declan G.M. Murphy, Grainne M. McAlonan*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: The underlying neurobiology of the complex autism phenotype remains obscure, although accumulating evidence implicates the serotonin system and especially the 5HT2A receptor. However, previous research has largely relied upon association or correlation studies to link differences in serotonin targets to autism. To directly establish that serotonergic signalling is involved in a candidate brain function our approach is to change it and observe a shift in that function. We will use psilocybin as a pharmacological probe of the serotonin system in vivo. We will directly test the hypothesis that serotonergic targets of psilocybin – principally, but not exclusively, 5HT2A receptor pathways—function differently in autistic and non-autistic adults. Methods: The ‘PSILAUT’ “shiftability” study is a case–control study autistic and non-autistic adults. How neural responses ‘shift’ in response to low doses (2 mg and 5 mg) of psilocybin compared to placebo will be examined using multimodal techniques including functional MRI and EEG. Each participant will attend on up to three separate visits with drug or placebo administration in a double-blind and randomized order. Results: This study will provide the first direct evidence that the serotonin targets of psilocybin function differently in the autistic and non-autistic brain. We will also examine individual differences in serotonin system function. Conclusions: This work will inform our understanding of the neurobiology of autism as well as decisions about future clinical trials of psilocybin and/or related compounds including stratification approaches. Trial registration: NCT05651126.

Original languageEnglish
Article number319
JournalBMC Psychiatry
Issue number1
Early online date25 Apr 2024
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 25 Apr 2024


  • Autism
  • Neuroimaging
  • Pharmacology
  • Psilocybin
  • Psychedelics
  • Serotonin


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