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The VA looks to psychedelic drugs to help veterans suffering with PTSD and other disorders

Participants in the study are given a dose of psilocybin, then relax with eye masks and headphones and get CT scans done. Research facilitators are nearby but stay largely uninvolved unless the participant needs them.
Josh Siegel
Washington University
Participants in a study at Washington University are given a dose of psilocybin, then relax with eye masks and headphones and undergo CT scans. Similar studies are underway in conjunction with the VA to help veterans with PTSD.

Jesse Gould, a retired Army Ranger mortar man who was deployed to Afghanistan three times, was diagnosed with PTSD and given all the usual treatments, but none of them worked.

“The concussive forces over time can damage the brain. I was not diagnosed with that but had to figure that out for myself, being around all of these explosions,” Gould said.

Then he discovered therapy using psychedelic drugs, and it changed his life.

“A lot of traumas don’t go away, but you are able to handle them better, right? We can’t change our past, but we can handle how we process things and how we allow things to completely take over our lives,” Gould said. “And that is a gift that my own psychedelic therapies have given me.”

Gould, who is the founder and president of the Heroic Hearts Project, a nonprofit advocating for psychedelic therapies for military veterans, is among a growing number of people pushing for more research and use of MDMA, also known as Ecstasy, and psilocybin, a compound found in dozens of varieties of mushrooms.

The Veterans Administration is now participating in at least five trials of the drugs in New York, California and Oregon. This reverses a decadeslong abandonment of government research on psychedelics.

In the 1950s, scientists saw huge potential in using these drugs to treat addiction and other psychiatric conditions. But when recreational use of the substances grew in the 1960s and was met with a war on drugs, the research came to a halt.

In recent years, the studies have resumed at hospitals and universities around the country.

Dr. Josh Siegel at the Healthy Mind Lab at Washington University in St. Louis is one of them. He said while the data show psychedelics are successful in treating PTSD, severe depression and anxiety, there isn’t consensus among researchers on exactly how they work.

Siegel said some believe the mental journey someone has while on the drugs is the cause, while others look to the science.

“These drugs, which are, in the case of psychedelics, hitting specific serotonin sub receptors, and this produces changes in brain plasticity, and that’s why the drugs work. And maybe it has nothing to do with the acute psychedelic experience,” Siegel said.

Siegel and his colleagues are excited that the VA is getting more involved in studies of psychedelics, as it is a major sign of overall acceptance of using the drugs as part of a therapy program.

“For the VA to put their resources and effort behind understanding how these drugs work, really, I think, is important because it serves a large number of people, it’s a huge network of clinics that’s very well integrated, so it's easier to consistently collect data across that population,” said Dr. Ginger Nicol, a Washington University psychiatrist.

Advocates for psychedelic use say a big hurdle to widespread acceptance is a need for highly trained doctors and nurses to administer the therapies.

Eapen Thampy, a lobbyist for Silo Wellness, said patients going through psychedelic therapy are vulnerable to suggestion and require practitioners of the highest training and ethics.

“There have been numerous scandals where a facilitator sexually abuses the person they are leading through a psychedelic or MDMA experience,” he said.

Thampy said even with those caveats, he is glad the VA is getting involved in studies with psychedelics. But he is concerned the agency’s public support is measured.

The House Veterans Affairs Committee heard brief testimony on the VA’s involvement in the research in September.

“VA researchers are engaged in research around this, however they need very specific safety and approvals to ensure that we are keeping our veterans safe while we are exploring these new interventions,” Lisa Brenner, a clinical psychologist with the VA, told the committee. “These current projects are not funded by the office of research and development, but VA is engaged and watching closely.”

That testimony came months after VA trials were underway and nearly a year after almost identical comments were made before the same committee.

Advocates for psychedelic therapies hope the federal Drug Enforcement Administration will take the Schedule 1 designation off MDMA and psilocybin, paving the way for more research and usage.

They hope to avoid a state-by-state set of decisions as has been the case for medical marijuana.

So far, Oregon, Connecticut and Texas have approved measures allowing the study of psilocybin and MDMA for mental health treatment.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Jonathan Ahl is the Newscast Editor and Rolla correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.