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Psychopharmacology professor unlearns cannabis use

20 September 2017
Changing attitudes towards cannabis for medical benefits

Professor Iain McGregor explains how unlearning has led to a new way of seeing the world – from tennis to the perception of failure.

Professor of Pharmacology and cannabis researcher Iain McGregor

What is your background, and why did you decide to join the University?

I grew up in Edinburgh. My high school had fantastic music, chemistry and geography teachers: these three teachers really shaped my destiny. I went on to study experimental psychology at the University of Oxford, and it was there that I started to learn about the mysteries of the brain and behaviour and the actions of psychoactive drugs.

My geography teacher at high school was always passionate about Australia: in a damp cold Scottish classroom it sounded incredibly exotic, and I kept meeting these bright sunny Australian backpackers in Edinburgh who were full of fun. So when the University of Sydney kindly offered me an airfare and a PhD scholarship I jumped at the opportunity and never looked back. That was 30 years ago. 

Were you always interested in pursuing a career in science? 

Not exactly. My first love was music and I spent a few years in the United Kingdom music industry playing keyboards and songwriting in various bands. If you think forging a career in science is tough, you should try the music business! Music and science intersect in all sorts of interesting ways and are complementary exercises in complex cognition, creativity and hands-on skills. Two sides of the same coin.

What have you unlearned recently?

I have recently returned to playing tennis and went for a few lessons. At my first lesson, the coach asked me to play a few backhand shots and had a good belly laugh at my expense. Subsequently, I have been unlearning my crummy backhand. The neuroplasticity of the human brain never ceases to amaze me, and particularly our capacity to learn new motor skills, reprogram complex behaviours and reconstruct our internal view of our world at will.

The history of science is punctuated by great leaps that occurred when someone had the temerity and genius to blow up the dominant paradigm. As scientists, we should always be teasing apart the roots and tendrils of our grand constructions.
Professor Iain McGregor

Why do you think it’s important to consistently challenge what has been done previously, as an act of unlearning?

Like a muscle, your brain loves to be used. Exercising your brain will protect it from decline, decay, dementia (and other dismal words starting with d). One great cognitive challenge is to deconstruct the prevailing paradigms in areas of science, politics and technology and imagine alternative paths. The history of science is punctuated by great leaps that occurred when someone had the temerity and genius to blow up the dominant paradigm. As scientists, we should always be teasing apart the roots and tendrils of our grand constructions.

Where do you see the place of cannabinoid-based treatments in mainstream medicine in the future?

Australia and many other countries have been doing a great deal of unlearning around cannabis recently. The dominant paradigm of the past 70 years – that cannabis is an evil addictive drug that destroys lives and brains – has undergone a remarkable U-turn to the point where we even have state governments (Victoria) growing cannabis to give to children with epilepsy.

It is important to realise that cannabis isn’t just one drug – it is more than 100 drugs all rolled into one. In our research program at the Lambert Initiative for Cannabinoid Therapeutics, we are finding that some individual ingredients of the cannabis plant have outstanding potential in the treatment of epilepsy, pain, cancer and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Cannabinoid science will advance to the point where some of these purified ingredients will become mainstream medicines, but there may also continue to be a role for whole plant extracts in treating certain conditions. The generosity of the Lambert family has enabled an incredible opportunity for the University of Sydney to be at the forefront of this global movement towards cannabinoid medicines.

What are you reading at the moment?

Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original by Robin Kelley. Monk is a huge favourite of mine – a jazz iconoclast. Back in the day, he was attacked as being a no-hoper, out of tune, ham-fisted, bar-room thumper. Now of course we realise he was a musical genius. Oh, and on the side, I am reading How to Tell if Your Cat is Plotting to Kill You by Matthew Inman. I have been a bit worried about mine recently ... and have a keen interest in animal behaviour and cognition.