Conservative Texas Leans Into Psychedelic Research

On December 16, 2021, researchers at Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin launched the Center for Psychedelic Research and Therapy

The Texas center joins other similar centers in the U.S. in California (established in 2015) and Baltimore (established in 2019), and a growing list of over 100 colleges and universities in the U.S. alone who have partnered with for-profit companies, non-profit organizations, and government agencies to study psychedelic medicine.

The new center secured funding to launch its initial work and will leverage the research infrastructure and expertise at Dell Med and University of Texas-Austin to advance its goals.

The launch of the center was a direct reaction to the passing of Texas House Bill 1802 on June 18, 2021, which specified actions for Baylor College of Medicine but also opened the door to more help for veterans using alternative treatments at any medical institution across the state. 

The bill stipulated that the Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) conduct a study on the use of alternative therapies to treat veterans suffering from PTSD with Baylor College of Medicine. The bill writers chose Baylor for this study presumably because it ranked with U.S. News and World Report as one of the best medical research schools in the country (Dell Medical School, by comparison, is unranked). 

Baylor is to perform a clinical trial on the therapeutic efficacy of using psilocybin in the treatment of treatment-resistant post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans, review current literature regarding the safety and efficacy of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), psilocybin, and ketamine in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, and the access veterans have to these psychedelic substances. 

The HHSC is required to prepare and submit to the governor, the lieutenant governor, the speaker of the house of representatives, and each member of the legislature quarterly reports on the progress of the study, and, by December 1, 2024, a written report containing the results of the study conducted under this section and “any recommendations for legislative or other action.” The costs of the study are expected to be approximately $2.7 million between now and December 2024, according to the HHSC.

The new Texas center at the University of Texas-Austin will conduct its own clinical research to better understand the potential for drugs such as psilocybin, MDMA, ibogaine and ayahuasca to treat severe depression, anxiety and PTSD when used as part of treatment with a trained provider. 

The center’s initial focus will be on military veterans living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), adults experiencing prolonged grief disorder or depression, and those who have experienced childhood trauma. 

The focus on veterans comes in part because of the center’s relationship with the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System (CTVHCS). The system features a large stand-alone clinic in Austin, and has one of the largest inpatient psychiatric facilities in the U.S. in Waco, which is the location of one of its two medical centers. The system serves a veteran population of more than 252,000 in the area.

The first program partners of the Center for Psychedelic Research and Therapy will be The Mission Within, a clinical psychedelic retreat provider in Rosarito, Mexico focusing on specialized treatments for PTSD, depression, anxiety, and personal growth; and the Heroic Hearts Project, a nonprofit that connects military veterans struggling with trauma to psychedelic therapy options including ayahuasca, psilocybin, ibogaine, and ketamine treatments in combination with professional coaching.

By the middle of next year, Greg Fonzo, the co-director of the center, hopes to begin the first research study, according to an article in the Austin American Statesman, the major daily newspaper for Austin. He wants the center to run more larger scale studies with more than 100 participants. Each study will have different criteria for who can enroll, but all of the studies will focus on adults.

The research team at the center will also explore treatments that combine psychedelic drugs with brain modulation techniques such as transcranial focused ultrasound and transcranial magnetic stimulation which have been used to measure the effects of psychedelic drugs on neural integration. That technique has also be used as a neuromodulation technique to treat substance abuse disorders, and to study anticonvulsant drugs.

Fonzo’s prior work was in functional magnetic resonance imaging to assess brain function, which is increasingly focused on integrating computational modeling approaches to understand information processing dysfunction in psychiatric disorders.

“This research will bring further scientific rigor and expertise to study psychedelic therapy,” said center co-lead Charles B. Nemeroff, professor and chair of Dell Med’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and holder of the Matthew P. Nemeroff Endowed Chair in a press release. “Engaging in this kind of work at a place like UT Austin opens up a world of possibilities.”

More work is being done at a few other Texas medical institutions, including the McGovern Medical School at the University of Texas-Houston Center of Excellence on Mood Disorders, which is taking part in a worldwide multi-center study investigating the effects of psilocybin in treatment-resistant depression. The study is sponsored by COMPASS Pathways (NASDAQ: CMPS).

Dave Hodes

David Hodes is a business journalist based in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. He has contributed feature articles to several cannabis and psychedelics publications, as well as general business/lifestyle publications, on a variety of topics. Hodes was selected as 2018 Journalist of the Year by Americans for Safe Access. He is a member of the National Press Club, and the deputy booking agent for the National Press Club Headliners Committee.

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