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Congress Approves Psychedelic Research Bill for Veterans With PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injuries
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Congress Approves Psychedelic Research Bill for Veterans With PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injuries

Seraiah Alexander
Seraiah Alexander
December 22, 2023
6 min

Last week, Congress approved a defense spending bill that will fund military research and clinical trials on cannabis, psilocybin, and other psychedelic drugs to determine their efficacy in treating service members and veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries (TBI). The passage of Section 723 of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) will provide service members with the opportunity to undergo psychedelic-assisted therapy and designate $10 million for the U.S. military to explore this option as a new approach to mental health treatment.

Details about the new bill

Back in June, the Senate Appropriations Committee proposed a military spending bill containing several requests for the 2024 military construction budget. Amongst these requests was a significant directive that aimed to expand research into the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics. The Committee urged the Veterans Affairs Department (VA) to investigate the potential of these substances for treating various health conditions that are prevalent among veterans, like PTSD, major depressive disorder, and chronic pain. This directive was a crucial component of a more extensive approach to addressing veteran mental healthcare through psychedelic therapy. 

The funding for the NDAA will enable researchers to further explore psychedelics and other “qualified” natural therapies, such as cannabis, as a treatment option for service members with mental health conditions. Even though psychedelics and cannabis are federally illegal, active duty service members will have the opportunity to participate in clinical studies without breaking the law as long as they have been diagnosed with a post-traumatic condition and receive clearance from the Department of Defense.

The clinics that participate in psychedelic studies are required to discuss their findings with Congress and include details regarding the treatment outcomes and the medical conditions of the participants. The results from these funded studies will further contribute to medical knowledge regarding the possibility of using these drugs as an alternative treatment for PSTD and TBI. Positive outcomes could potentially change federal policy regarding the use of psychedelics and cannabis for medical purposes.

Previous research findings

Multiple findings from previous studies have found a promising connection between psychedelics and their therapeutic potential, particularly for those suffering from severe symptoms of PTSD. Recent research has been mainly focused on the medicinal value of MDMA and psilocybin, which have shown significant results in clinical trials.

The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) has been extensively studying MDMA-assisted therapy for treating PTSD. In their Phase 3 study, MAPS reported that participants treated with MDMA saw improved PTSD symptoms for at least six months and, in some cases, significantly longer following treatment (1). These results demonstrate the long-lasting potential of MDMA therapy, especially for those with treatment-resistant PTSD. In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) designated MDMA as a Breakthrough Therapy in 2017, recognizing its potential efficacy for treating PTSD. This designation will expedite research into the treatment, possibly resulting in MDMA becoming an approved and regulated drug by as early as 2024

Similarly, psilocybin, the active compound in psychedelic mushrooms, has been designated Breakthrough Therapy status due to its therapeutic potential for treatment-resistant depression. Psilocybin has been researched for various mental health disorders and has been found to potentially help rewire the mind by increasing brain connectivity and breaking long-held neural patterns of self-focus and rumination. Psilocybin has been shown to reduce neural connections in brain areas closely tied to depression while also increasing the connections of networks in other regions that haven’t been properly integrated (2). Furthermore, psilocybin and other serotonergic psychedelics can impact 5-HT2A receptors in the brain, allowing the brain the opportunity to reorganize itself in the following days and weeks after treatment so that patients can experience changes in their thought patterns and emotional processing (3).

Beyond the treatment of mental health conditions, psychedelics may also offer remarkable benefits in the treatment of TBIs because of their ability to impact neural pathways. When the brain has suffered from severe physical trauma, these pathways can be significantly disrupted and negatively impact an individual’s emotional regulation, cognitive function, and overall brain health. Recent studies have found that some psychedelic substances may help improve these symptoms of TBIs and help the brain repair after injury by reducing excess neuroinflammation (4). Though there is not as much research on the effects of psychedelics on TBIs, the findings from the military trials may instigate a better understanding of how these substances can help treat service members dealing with trauma-related psychological and cognitive impairments.

Hope for service members with PTSD and TBI

Around 7% of veterans will have PTSD in their lifetime, and 10.1% sustain moderate to severe TBIs. The prevalence and severity of these conditions have a major impact on their quality of life, often leading to long-term disabilities, mental health problems, and social challenges. Psychotherapy and antidepressants are the conventional treatments for PTSD, yet they still have limited effectiveness, whereas psychedelics have been shown to have better and longer-lasting results in recent trials (5). 

Jonathan Lubecky, an Army and Marine veteran, is a testament to the transformative abilities of these treatments. In 2017, Lubecky underwent MDMA-assisted therapy to treat his PTSD after serving in the Iraq War.

 “I’m one of the fortunate people on this planet who can say I’ve been healed of PTSD longer than I’ve actually had it,” said Lubecky

Three doses of MDMA and eight therapy sessions later, Lubecky no longer feels the debilitating effects of PTSD. He has since become an advocate for psychedelic-assisted therapy and has worked alongside MAPS to raise awareness and push for FDA approval.

David Cook, the executive director of the Special Operations Association of America (SOAA), recognizes the positive outcomes that can occur from psychedelic-assisted therapies on service members.

 “What’s been proposed and implemented in the past is obviously not working today,” said Cook in an interview with Stars and Stripes. “Legislation like this aims to give our heroes more options and hope for life-saving treatments.”

The passing of the NDAA may be a life-altering opportunity for many veterans who have not had luck with other treatment options for their conditions. Because of the growing research and increasing success of psychedelic-assisted therapy, many service members and veterans are eager to receive such a potentially transformative treatment. However, the legal status of these drugs has made it incredibly difficult for them to receive this form of healthcare. Now, with the recent legislative changes, psychedelic therapy can be more accessible to those who need it and is one step closer to becoming established as a legitimate option. 

Medically retired Navy SEAL Team SIX operator Marcus Capone turned to psychedelic-assisted therapy when all other treatment approaches failed. 

“I honestly couldn’t tell you how many different psychologists I went to,” said Capone in an interview with Task & Purpose. “It was the traditional Western medicine approach of antidepressants and talk therapy, and I wasn’t getting any better.” 

After suffering from PTSD and a TBI from his service, Capone spent several years experiencing severe anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Desperate for one last chance, Capone attended a five-day retreat in Mexico where he was treated with two powerful psychedelics – ibogaine and 5-MeO-DMT.

 “Those treatments saved my life,” Capone remarked. “My life had been so dark for so long, and after those treatments, my whole perspective flipped — a complete 180.”

Capone’s healing experience is yet another example of how psychedelic therapy can offer profound benefits to those who have endured the traumas of war,  providing a renewed sense of hope and possibility for veterans seeking alternative mental health treatments. As research continues to expand and legislative barriers begin to change, veterans and service members are one step closer to more accessible and effective treatment options. The passing of the NDAA demonstrates the U.S. Military’s acknowledgment of the potential of psychedelic-assisted therapy, signaling a significant shift in conventional treatments and opening doors to therapies that could offer more profound healing and long-term recovery.

References

  1. Daws, Richard E., Christopher Timmermann, Bruna Giribaldi, James D. Sexton, Matthew B. Wall, David Erritzoe, Leor Roseman, David Nutt, and Robin Carhart-Harris. 2022. “Increased Global Integration in the Brain after Psilocybin Therapy for Depression.” Nature Medicine 28 (4): 844–51. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41591-022-01744-z.
  2. Khan, Shariq Mansoor, Gregory T. Carter, Sunil K. Aggarwal, and Julie Holland. 2021. “Psychedelics for Brain Injury: A Mini-Review.” Frontiers in Neurology 12 (July). https://doi.org/10.3389/fneur.2021.685085.
  3. Madsen, Martin K., Dea S. Stenbæk, Albin Arvidsson, Sophia Armand, Maja R. Marstrand-Joergensen, Sys S. Johansen, Kristian Linnet, Brice Ozenne, Gitte M. Knudsen, and Patrick M. Fisher. 2021. “Psilocybin-Induced Changes in Brain Network Integrity and Segregation Correlate with Plasma Psilocin Level and Psychedelic Experience.” European Neuropsychopharmacology 50 (September): 121–32. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.euroneuro.2021.06.001.
  4. Mohamed, Arafath, Shehla Touheed, Muzammil Ahmed, Mosab Hor, and Sara Fatima. 2022. “The Efficacy of Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy in Managing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): A New Frontier?” Cureus 14 (10). https://doi.org/10.7759/cureus.30919.
  5. Mullard, Asher. 2023. “MDMA-Assisted Therapy for PTSD Passes Phase III Trial.” Nature Reviews Drug Discovery 22 (11): 863–63. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41573-023-00165-y.

Fact Checked: Shannon Ratliff


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legislation
Seraiah Alexander

Seraiah Alexander

Content Editor

Table Of Contents

1
Details about the new bill
2
Previous research findings
3
Hope for service members with PTSD and TBI
4
References

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