VA to Explore Psychedelics for PTSD and Depression

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LOS ANGELES- In a groundbreaking move, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is funding research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics for treating mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression in veterans. This initiative, a first in decades, signals a significant shift in the VA’s approach to mental health treatment.

The VA’s request for applications (RFA) calls on its pool of researchers to explore the effectiveness of methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) and psilocybin, the active compound in magic mushrooms, for these conditions. The last time the VA funded similar research was in 1963, focusing on psychedelics for alcoholism and mental disorders.

This new research endeavor seeks definitive scientific evidence on the efficacy of MDMA and psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy for treating veterans with PTSD and depression. The initiative has garnered strong support from the VA leadership. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough emphasized the organization’s commitment to innovation, stating, “Our nation’s Veterans deserve the very best care, and VA is constantly supporting innovations to deliver that.” This sentiment was echoed by VA’s Under Secretary for Health Dr. Shereef Elnahal, who acknowledged the long-standing interest in psychedelics’ potential for treating mental health conditions.

The economic burden of PTSD in the U.S. is estimated at $230 billion annually, underscoring the urgent need for alternative treatments. This new research initiative comes after the FDA granted breakthrough therapy status for MDMA for treating PTSD and psilocybin for depression in 2018 and 2019, respectively. A Denver, Colorado meeting in September, involving VA and federal clinicians, scientists, and policymakers, reviewed existing scientific evidence on psychedelic-assisted therapies, ultimately advising the VA to fund its own studies.

Johns Hopkins researchers have found that psilocybin-assisted therapy can reduce depression symptoms for up to 12 months, with a significant percentage of participants achieving clinically meaningful benefits from MDMA in treating PTSD. These findings have prompted calls from VA organizations like the American Legion and Disabled American Veterans for expanded research.

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2024 has authorized the Department of Defense to study psychedelics within military populations, paralleling the VA’s new research efforts. This RFA represents a critical step in directly assessing the efficacy and safety of MDMA and psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy for veterans, a group previously not included in such studies.

In a cautious approach, the VA added a disclaimer against self-treatment with psychedelics. Meanwhile, High Times reported that Lykos Therapeutics (formerly MAPS Public Benefit Corporation) submitted an FDA application for MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD, following promising results from clinical trials.

This move by the VA is a pivotal step towards embracing psychedelic-assisted therapy in the U.S., reflecting a growing recognition of these substances’ potential therapeutic benefits, especially for veterans grappling with PTSD and depression.

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