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UT and Dell Medical School to study psychedelics for mental health


Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin is opening the Center for Psychedelic Research and Therapy, which will study the use of psychedelic drugs to treat certain mental health issues.

The center was made possible by the passage of the House Bill 1802 in the 2021 Regular Session of the Texas Legislature. This bill makes it possible to study the use of alternative therapies.

The center will conduct clinical research into the use of drugs such as ibogaine (a West African shrub), ayahuasca (a South American tea), psilocybin (mushrooms) and MDMA (methylenedioxymethamphetamine. , also called ecstasy or Molly) for the treatment of severe depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

This is a group of drugs that have been used recreationally or in religious ceremonies, says Greg Fonzo, co-director of the center and assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Dell Medical School. Dr Charles Nemeroff, a Dell Medical School professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, will also co-lead the center.

Research at the center will be “very different from recreational drug use,” Fonzo said. Drugs will be obtained from specific manufacturers who are working with research studies and stored in a safe that meets Drug Enforcement Administration guidelines. These types of drugs have been studied over the past decade at research centers like Stanford University and Johns Hopkins University.

The drugs will be administered in a controlled manner with a mental health care provider alongside the study participant and as part of psychotherapy. It won’t be like other psychiatric drugs, which are taken daily, says Fonzo. Instead, it will be administered once, twice or three times as part of a psychotherapy session.

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For people who have had difficult experiences, Fonzo says, these drugs “can be a catalyst for deep personal understanding or healing,” he says.

Therapists will accompany participants throughout the experience and assist them, but much of the work, Fonzo says, will be done with them “internally navigating their inner experience.”

These are drugs that were studied in the 1960s, then fell out of favor, but started to be researched again in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Fonzo says.

These treatments are becoming more and more accessible as more research has been conducted on them and COVID-19 has brought mental health to the fore. “It was an interesting radical change,” says Fonzo. “In the beginning there was a lot of skepticism or criticism among mainstream psychiatry.”

They are not yet approved by the FDA, but Fonzo says he believes it will happen in the next five years, as more and more data has been collected in research centers around the world on their effectiveness.

Because these drugs do not yet have FDA approval, Fonzo recommends that people interested in these therapies enroll in studies conducted at research centers like the new one at UT, rather than looking for one. processing outside of a research environment.

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The Dell Medical School center begins by focusing on veterans with PTSD and works with the Heroic Hearts Project, which helps veterans seeking treatment using psychedelics.

Austin has a large veteran population, and many veterans with PTSD have not been as responsive to existing treatments, he says. “There is a lot of support for psychedelic therapy among veterans,” he says. Part of this is fueled by veterans seeking treatment in Mexico and South America, who are successful and come back to the United States to talk about it.

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The center will also seek to treat people with prolonged bereavement and people who suffered trauma during their childhood.

By the middle of next year, Fonzo hopes to start the first research study at the center. He wants the center to conduct studies on a larger scale, with more than 100 participants. Each study will have different criteria for who can enroll, but all studies will focus on adults.

The studies will have a regulated number of sessions and a treatment period, but one of the things that Fonzo is interested in is long-term effectiveness and whether these treatments need to be repeated with booster sessions.

Fonzo will also study the use of these drugs alongside modulation techniques such as focused ultrasound or magnetic stimulation. The idea would be that if the brain is clay, the psychedelics would help heat up the clay for sculpting, and the modulating devices would focus the therapy, much like a sculptor uses a tool to sculpt clay.

Neuromodulation can help shape therapy and control which part of the brain is activated.

Some of the other ongoing research will help compare psychedelics to traditional methods, try to establish which patients are best suited for psychedelics in therapy, and find ways to improve effectiveness.

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