On the 18-year anniversary of September 11, DARPA, the U.S. military research arm, said it was pursuing the development of fast-acting drugs to treat “chronic depression and post-traumatic stress.”
Substance abuse is an issue of concern for the U.S. military, according to the release. PTSD and other conditions can lead to negative thought processes which inhibit productivity, functionality and lead to the preoccupation with substance use to alleviate symptoms.
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.
The release cites a lack of uniform efficacy in existing medications in treatments for these conditions. The effectiveness of selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) vary on a case-by-case basis, and DARPA cites their potential for causing undesirable side effects and their inability to prevent relapse once patients cease using them.
Psychotherapy requires repeated sessions with a dedicated therapist over long periods of time, while electroshock therapy requires hospitalization and is not “rapidly deployable.”
“Focused Pharma will work to develop fast-acting drugs that have lasting impact, going beyond treating the symptoms of mental illness to tackle its underlying neurochemical roots,” said Dr. Tristan McClure-Begley, DARPA program manager.
The goal of the Focused Pharma program is to develop novel compounds that directly affect specific neurotransmitter signaling processes that are often implicated in neurophysiological dysfunction, while overcoming limitations of current approaches. The envisioned drugs would selectively target and bind to specific neurotransmitter receptors, and activate only specific neural signaling pathways that may impact the conditions of interest.
Given the limitations of existing medications, the program is turning to research from private organizations working with schedule I controlled drugs like MDMA to provide solutions to issues that Big Pharma has proven incapable of addressing.
The issue for DARPA is a pervasive lack of consistency in all available treatments: SSRIs can increase lethargy or even suicidality, but drugs such as LSD and MDMA can also cause “significant side effects, including hallucination.”
To avoid these effects, DARPA is aiming to create drugs which selectively treat mental illness without the onset of unwanted side effects.
“Taken together, current therapeutic options are largely palliative in nature and are ill-suited for rapid intervention.”
“We anticipate receiving and reviewing proposals for funding over the next 6-9 months, and should begin work in roughly June 2020,” according to Tim Kilbride with DARPA public affairs.
The Focused Pharma R&D program is divided into two phases which will investigate two areas of research over 48 months.
The key aspect of any treatment developed under the Focused Pharma program is that it is, well, fast-acting and effective with a limited number of doses.
DARPA and the legacy of MK-Ultra
Between 1953 and 1964, a covert research program headed by the CIA experimented with mind-altering hallucinogens on unwilling test subjects in American hospitals, foreign prisons and at McGill University in Montreal.
The program was called MK-Ultra.
The Deputy Director of the CIA revealed that over 30 universities and institutions were involved in an “extensive testing and experimentation” program which included covert drug tests on unwitting citizens “at all social levels, high and low, native Americans and foreign.” Several of these tests involved the administration of LSD to “unwitting subjects in social situations.”
–Sen. John F. Kennedy, Aug. 3, 1977
The program was conceived in the midst of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union as reports of imprisoned American soldiers renouncing the West and embracing communism began to emerge.
Fearing the development of a Soviet mind-control program, and eager to explore the lengths to which the human brain was susceptible to manipulation under duress, American intelligence agencies endeavored to begin experimentation on unwilling human subjects.
These tests, oftentimes lacking any semblance of scientific merit or clinical framework, involved dosing subjects with large quantities of LSD, inducing unconsciousness for months at a time and multiple electroshock therapy sessions. At least one confirmed death has been discovered as a result of the program.
Bob Logie, an 18-year-old Canadian, was admitted to Allen Memorial hospital at McGill for psychosomatic leg pain. In interviews with The CBC, Logie said the ensuing trauma from experiments he was subjected to haunted him long after the program’s dismantling, affected his ability to remain employed.
“I feel like I’ve been completely used. I feel like my mind has been completely invaded. I suppose if guinea pigs have feelings they’d feel like I do,” Logie told the fifth estate host Adrienne Clarkson.
As the Vietnam War came to a close, the Church Committee uncovered the extent of CIA and DOD experimentation on unwilling subjects, and a slew of lawsuits on both sides of the border ensued.
The changing pace of war
The legacy of MK-Ultra looms large over any state initiative involving experimentation with hallucinogens. For the U.S. military to be considering this program, the potential rewards must outweigh the considerable scrutiny than any related research will incur.
The nature of armed conflict, at least as it pertains to the U.S., has changed dramatically since the end of the 20th century. Beginning in 2001, the U.S.’ conflict in Afghanistan is the longest sustained military campaign in the nation’s history.
Protracted low-intensity conflicts like the U.S. campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq have become the norm as inferior fighting forces engage in asymmetrical warfare to contend with the gargantuan American military.
President Trump has voiced his intention to increase the number of active duty personnel currently serving, a response to what the Center for Strategic & International Studies calls “a state of persistent conflict that has demanded a continuing U.S. response.”
The Heritage Foundation, another U.S. think tank, said “America’s deteriorating international position requires an urgent reinvestment in and expansion of U.S. military forces.”
If wars are to continue as protracted engagements with sporadic fighting, and a both constant and increased U.S. military presence is demanded across the globe, new treatments for veterans exposed to combat are needed to maintain a sizable and effective fighting force.
More than a decade of war in the Middle East has pushed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to the forefront of public health concerns. The last several years have seen a dramatic increase in the number of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans seeking help for PTSD,1 shining a spotlight on this debilitating condition and raising critical questions about appropriate treatment options and barriers to care.
With a booming psychedelic sector, and with renewed interests in psychedelics by the U.S. military, we may be on the verge of private-public partnerships.