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DARPA Drugs: New Class of Psychedelics for Vets

DARPA Drugs: New Class of Psychedelics for Vets
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The military wants to know: Can a psychedelic that does not cause you to hallucinate also heal you? That’s what DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is spending $27 million dollars on to find out. Focused Pharma, their new initiative, states:

In the wake of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the mental health crisis among U.S. military veterans remains unrelenting, despite the best efforts of healthcare researchers and providers to confront the scale and scope of the problem. According to a 2018 report from the Department of Veterans Affairs, an average of twenty U.S. veterans commit suicide each day.


Vets in Pain

The program’s slogan is Rapid remedies for neuropsychiatric health. And the problem of mental disturbances, illnesses, and suicide among U.S. veterans is a heartbreaking crisis. The devastation might be best portrayed in the 2018 documentary From Shock to Awe. The film vividly depicts both the psychological trauma vets face everyday and the unmatched healing effects of psychedelics like ayahuasca and MDMA on the vets.

There is a major precedent for DARPA to be looking into psychedelic therapies to help heal traumatized vets. But why try and remove the hallucinogenic component of psychedelics? The answer is all military:

In creating Focused Pharma, DARPA examined evidence from privately funded human clinical studies demonstrating that certain Schedule 1 controlled drugs that engage serotonin receptors show promise of rapid and long-lasting therapeutic effect in treating neuropsychiatric conditions such as chronic alcohol dependence, post-traumatic stress disorder, and treatment-resistant depression, following only limited doses. However, because such drugs act on many neurotransmitter receptors and receptor subtypes in the brain without specificity and indiscriminately activate numerous signaling pathways, they produce significant side effects, including hallucination. These effects, coupled with their unpredictable consequences, render the drugs unusable in a military healthcare setting.


Non-psychedelic Psychedelics

In an odd twist, although a group as well-funded and famously high-tech as DARPA sees the value of “certain Schedule 1 controlled drugs,” it seems unwilling or unable to prescribe something like psilocybin therapy, or any other psychedelic therapy for that matter. This is despite psilocybin’s slowly growing legalization. Bryan L. Roth, MD, PhD who leads the Focused Pharma project clarifies the problem:

“Rapidly acting drugs with antidepressant, anti-anxiety, and anti-addictive potential devoid of disabling side effects do not exist, not even as experimental compounds for use in animals. Creating such compounds would change the way we treat millions of people around the world suffering from these serious and life-threatening conditions.”

Dr. Roth, UNC Health

As the military always does, the name of the game is control. Since psychedelics like psilocybin sometimes have unpredictable outcomes, the military is hesitant to outright recommend their use. Nevertheless, the growing anecdotal awareness that vets are finding relief from trauma through psychedelic experiences cannot be ignored.

What will come of the $27 million dollar anti-psychedelic psychedelic endeavor? Can novel psychedelic drugs with no hallucinatory effects heal people in the same way normal psychedelics do? The military wants to know as much as the vets and public likely do as well. Unfortunately, the research project is set to last at least four years. With roughly 20 veterans committing suicide every day, waiting four more years (or roughly 29,200 more suicides if the pace continues) seems a long time to wait for healing.

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