Ecstasy and magic mushrooms show signs of helping with PTSD treatment, researchers say
Stars and Stripes November 15, 2023
WASHINGTON — Researchers and veterans testifying Tuesday on the use of psychedelic drugs to relieve post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts urged House lawmakers to back more studies into the alternative treatments.
Treating serious depression with psychedelics “puts the mind, body and spirit in the place it needs to be so the therapy can work,” said Jonathan Lubecky, who served in the Army and Marine Corps.
Lubecky told lawmakers that he had suicidal thoughts after returning home from Iraq in 2006. He learned about and enrolled in a four-month clinical trial with MAPS Public Benefit Corp. that involved treatment of PTSD with psychedelic drugs followed by intensive psychotherapy, which he completed in 2015.
MAPS is the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies, a nonprofit research and educational company.
“I not only worked through my trauma from Iraq, but my whole life, and excised those demons for good,” Lubecky said, adding he has not used the drugs since his supervised treatment.
He now serves as legislative director of Veterans Exploring Treatment Solutions, a nonprofit that advocates for psychedelic-assisted therapies for veterans. The organization provides grants for veterans to receive treatments outside the United States.
At the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing conducted by its health oversight subpanel, veterans and clinicians talked about experiences and promising outcomes from “psychedelic-assisted therapies” offered in research settings.
The hearing looked at emerging therapies where testing is underway. Lawmakers sought to collect information from researchers, clinicians and veterans about their views on the effectiveness of psychedelic-assisted therapies and understand the guidelines for administering treatments.
Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, R-Iowa, the subcommittee chairwoman, said she has witnessed the struggles veterans face with PTSD and suicidal symptoms.
“For many veterans this treatment is lifesaving,” said Miller-Meeks, who is a physician and Army veteran.
“But we must urge caution,” she added. “We are not advocating for the legalization or casual use of psychedelics. What we are discussing is the clinically administered doses of these substances in combination with targeted therapy sessions in a clinical setting.”
Miller-Meeks and other lawmakers asked about the progress into the science and research of psychedelic-assisted therapies as well as the challenges ahead.
Witnesses urged support for more studies and testing by the VA, and several noted they hope the Food and Drug Administration will grant regulatory approval for the clinical delivery of certain psychedelic drugs for treatment of PTSD.
“What do you see as the key things for the VA and the committee to focus on, on the very near term?” asked Rep. Julia Brownley of California, the top Democrat on the committee.
Juliana Mercer, a Marine Corps veteran and director of veteran advocacy and public policy for the nonprofit Healing Breakthrough, said the VA needs to plan for challenges in implementing the “novel treatment” if it receives regulatory approval.
“We’ve worked really closely with VA stakeholders to identify some of these critical logistical challenges and potential solutions. They’re going to need to train thousands of clinicians, find the right facilities and have the [capacity] to facilitate this treatment.’‘
The focus is not just on advancing “the best innovative treatments” for veterans but achieving it safely, Dr. Carolyn Clancy, assistant undersecretary for health with the Office of Discovery, Education and Affiliate Networks at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“This is especially true for studies that test compounds such as MDMA and psilocybin as part of an intensive psychotherapy program to treat veterans with PTSD, depression and other mental health conditions.”
By MDMA, she referred to the clinical use of small doses of a psychedelic drug commonly known as ecstasy in controlled settings. Psilocybin is a mushroom extract that has hallucinogenic properties.
Clancy said current studies are funded largely by outside philanthropic organizations. The substances are listed as Schedule 1 drugs that are federally banned and illegal.
Schedule 1 drugs are not currently accepted as medical treatments.
Funding for psychedelic-assisted research is not restricted by statute but requires oversight and approval by the FDA and Drug Enforcement Agency, which can delay research and testing.
“VA ensures the treatments take place in safe environments and potential participants undergo comprehensive evaluations,” Clancy said, adding “potential research participants undergo careful medical and psychiatric screening to make sure it is safe for them to participate.
She said the Veterans Health Administration held a conference last month on the use of psychedelics in improving the mental health of veterans that enabled researchers to discuss and understand the state of scientific evidence.
Clancy said the conference determined the need for more clinical trials for enrolling more veterans. She said trials using MDMA treatment for PTSD have shown significant reductions in PTSD symptoms.
At the same time, Clancy said the VHA is looking at other promising treatments for severe depression that include transcranial magnetic stimulation for PTSD and depression, even with patients who’ve experienced traumatic brain injuries.