Oct 31, 2023 - Health

How psychedelics can help treat PTSD in veterans

Veterans hold a U.S. flag at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., for 2022 Memorial Day event. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

The push to use psychedelics as treatment for veterans with PTSD is gaining momentum across the country — and the Bay Area is taking the lead.

Why it matters: Studies show that MDMAs reduce PTSD symptoms and functional impairment. Advocates are working to secure FDA approval of its use in a bid to more effectively tackle the suicide epidemic among veterans.

State of play: Veterans Affairs Palo Alto is gearing up to recruit and screen participants for its own clinical trials with MDMA-assisted therapy, according to Stanford psychiatry professor Trisha Suppes, who is overseeing the research.

  • Under current protocol, patients are administered the compound three times over a 12- to 14-week period in a controlled, supervised setting with therapists.
  • "The data in clinical trials is always better than when things are actually exported to the real world ... so I don't think you're putting an end to PTSD," Suppes said. "But I think you're going to improve life and diminish symptoms very significantly for some veterans."

How it works: MDMA usually induces feelings of euphoria and warmth.

  • In the brain, it elicits an "almost completely unique release of neuromodulator substances" in the brain that include oxytocin and serotonin, said neuroscientist Jason Pyle, a Bay Area-based Army veteran who now serves as executive director of veterans advocacy nonprofit Healing Breakthrough.
  • That unique footprint creates a clinical effect that essentially "cuts the fear circuit" and allows patients to process deep-seated trauma without experiencing the extreme fear and anxiety associated with it, Suppes told Axios.

Zoom out: At the federal level, Healing Breakthrough has secured "overwhelming support on both sides of the aisle" for the treatment, noted principal director of public policy Juliana Mercer.

  • Though there remains stigma around MDMA's reputation as a party drug with potentially addictive properties, Mercer said lawmakers have generally come around once the scientific evidence is laid out and they're reassured that no medication leaves the clinic.
  • Given the bipartisan support, Mercer and Pyle believe the FDA could issue its approval next year and enable the VA to roll out national trials that eventually inform a program that can serve all veterans regardless of income, race, gender or location.

What they're saying: "PTSD is a lethal disease," Pyle told Axios. "So to think that we would leave it untreated — it's really inconceivable."

  • Mercer, who served as a Marine in Iraq and Afghanistan, said she's worked with veterans for almost two decades.
  • "Nothing helped ... until MDMA entered the scene. It's the bright light at the end of the tunnel."

The big picture: The VA has increasingly taken steps to address mental health issues among veterans in recent years. Suicide rates among the U.S. military increased by about 41% from 2015 to 2020.

  • Experts say veterans' use of MDMA could also open the door for other people at risk of PTSD, like sexual abuse survivors.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

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