Can psychedelics combat prolonged grief? Dell Medical School launches study to find out
Researchers will examine brain responses following treatment with psilocybin, a psychedelic derived from certain mushrooms, and 5-MeO-DMT, which comes from toad venom.
After serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, some veterans have found themselves fighting an invisible war inside their own minds. In search of relief, many have gravitated toward non-FDA-approved psychedelic therapies and are abandoning prescription medications.
“[Veterans] are in pain and they know that the pharmaceutical cocktail isn’t going to work,” decorated Marine veteran Sgt. Jenna Lombardo-Grosso said. “You only need to call up one of your friends to find out so-and-so committed suicide.”
Lombardo-Grosso said during her eight years of service, she saw extensive suffering, including friends die and loose limbs in a mortar attack in Iraq. That attack contributed to her own mild traumatic brain injury. She was also diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, which she mostly attributes to military and childhood sexual trauma.
Years of prescription medication and traditional therapy didn’t help much, she said.
“Before, when a trigger came up, it would be devastating," Lombardo-Grosso said. “Sometimes, I would vomit.”
Lombardo-Grosso left the service in 2012, but it wasn't until this year that she found relief — following just a couple of days of psychedelic therapy in March.
“It’s like I got a software update and there’s more processing power now," she said. “I have the ability to deal with [past trauma] in healthier ways.”
Lombardo-Grosso went to a retreat in Mexico run by The Mission Within, an organization that founder Dr. Martin Polanco says has provided psychedelic therapy to more than 700 veterans since 2017. The retreats are conducted out of the country because the compounds used are not legal as medical treatments in the United States.
“It's unfortunate that patients have to travel to Mexico or other countries to get this treatment,” Polanco said.
Polanco said he knows more evidence is needed before the FDA will greenlight psychedelic therapies and that he's eager to support research.
“We believe it is important to document scientifically what we have been seeing anecdotally," he said.
Measuring psychedelics' effectiveness
The Mission Within will be involved in studies UT Austin's Dell Medical School is gearing up to launch at its Center for Psychedelic Research and Therapy.
The center was created in 2021 by Greg Fonzo and Dr. Charles Nemeroff. After almost a year of planning, they are now poised to find answers to questions about the effectiveness of psychedelics on various mental health conditions. Nemeroff said the studies will evaluate who psychedelic treatment is good for, how often it should be administered and at what doses.
The center's first study will focus on the diagnosis of "prolonged grief."
“It's sort of this black hole of misery in which they get stuck in this particular way of thinking," Fonzo said.
For this, researchers are recruiting Gold Star Wives, those whose spouses died while serving in the military. Thirty participants will be studied: 15 will be given psilocybin which comes from specific mushrooms; five will take 5-MeO-DMT, a psychedelic derived from the venom of a toad; and the other 10 will not receive anything.
The Mission Within will administer the psychedelics outside the U.S. Participants will be brought to Austin for a series of tests before and after taking the psychedelics to measure their impact.
“We think psychedelics disrupt those [depressive] patterns and allow the brain to operate in new ways that weren't otherwise possible before," Fonzo said.
All participants will undergo brain scans called functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, which can measure how the brain responds in real-time.
"We're going to be investigating what are called behavioral tasks that people will complete inside the fMRI scanner, some of which are very unique to grief," Fonzo said.
While undergoing brain scans, participants may be shown pictures of their deceased spouses, for example, or look at grief-related words. Researchers will also analyze blood work to see how the participants' genetic makeup influences their response to psychedelic therapy.
'A connection to something greater'
Whether science can explain all that happens after taking psychedelics is yet to be seen.
"This spiritual medicine, what we call psychedelics, creates a venue to pass the filter of the mind, to open up that subconscious mind," said Andrea Lucie, a therapist who monitored and guided Lombardo-Grosso during her retreat at The Mission Within. “This is something that is sacred because it's touching the core of our human being."
Before she ingested the psychedelics, Lombardo-Grosso was instructed to set a clear goal of what she hoped to achieve.
“My intention was to let go of the traumas that were holding me back," she said.
“Imagine having the opportunity to just be reborn and see your entire reality with a fresh set of eyes." Jenna Lombardo-Grosso
Lombardo-Grosso took both of the compounds Dell Med will be studying. First she drank a cup of tea that contained psilocybin. In less than an hour of the first sip, she said, she began seeing herself in an objective way.
“I was just my child self, going back to the root of some of my deepest traumas," she said. "I felt all these feelings; I was so angry and then after all the anger, it was compassion for myself and for others and forgiveness.”
The next day she smoked 5-MeO-DMT.
“I felt my heart just open up and this pull and push of energy," she said. "Then I started purging. I could feel something being pulled out of me. Once that came out it was this white light and a profound moment where I felt a connection to something greater than myself.”
Lombardo-Grosso said her perspective of the world and herself changed profoundly in just 36 minutes.
“Imagine having the opportunity to just be reborn and see your entire reality with a fresh set of eyes," she said.
Polanco warns if psychedelics aren't used in a structured setting or without adequate support, a person can have a "psychotic break."
"You can have issues where the patient has trouble integrating the experience," he said.
Repairing a bad reputation
Research on psychedelics for therapeutic use is not new. It started in the 1950s, but was shut down by the 1970s after scientific scrutiny and the drugs' recreational use.
“It made it very hard for any research to continue,” Fonzo said. “There was cultural bias associated with countercultural movements of that era and legality issues. I think it has taken a while to circumvent those barriers.”
Given the history, Fonzo and Nemeroff said researchers today are cautious but hopeful their investigations on psychedelics will lead to better treatments to combat the invisible war of mental illness.
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