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DARPA attempting to remove hallucinatory “side effects” from psychedelic medicines

A newly announced research program from DARPA is looking to remove those pesky hallucinatory side effects from novel psychedelic medicines such as MDMA and psilocybin. The program is currently calling out for research proposals investigating innovative drug treatments targeting post-traumatic stress disorder and depression that can be administered without the “unpredictable consequences” of current psychedelic medicines.

The program is called Focused Pharma, and DARPA’s program manager Tristan McClure-Begley says the goal is to understand the underlying neurochemical mechanism behind the efficacy of drugs such as MDMA and psilocybin. The end game would be a pill to treat PTSD or depression in military healthcare settings that doesn’t require subjects to undergo an acute psychedelic experience.

“Our fundamental hypothesis is that drugs with biased activation of specific signaling pathways downstream of the receptor may be sufficient to induce a therapeutic effect that is uncoupled from deleterious neurological effects,” McClure-Begley explains. “Recent advances in neurotransmitter receptor structure-guided drug design are allowing us to generate the tools we need to test that hypothesis.”

The Focused Pharma announcement is careful to not reference specific compounds, but instead mentions how, “certain Schedule 1 controlled drugs” have displayed promising results treating, “neuropsychiatric conditions such as chronic alcohol dependence, post-traumatic stress, and treatment-resistant depression following only limited doses.” It seems clear DARPA is referring to a growing body of research finding MDMA and psilocybin to be impressively effective in treating a number of mental health conditions.

DARPA’s plan is to institute several research projects to find out if the beneficial mental health improvements found in prior studies can be decoupled from the acute hallucinatory effects of these drugs. Successful research projects will get four years to develop a novel drug ready to apply for an Investigation New Drug application through the FDA and progress into human clinical trials.

Underlying the entire Focused Pharma project is a suggestion that the supposed “deleterious neurological effects” of psychedelic agents such as psilocybin and MDMA, are fundamentally unrelated to the efficacy of the drugs. A great deal of research into these substances is suggesting the acute phenomenological experience, often lasting between four and eight hours, is vital to the lasting beneficial effect.

DARPA points to the way these psychedelic drugs influence highly specific serotonin receptors as a roadmap into more accurately engaging targeted neurotransmitters to achieve the same beneficial effects treating conditions such as PTSD, without an overwhelmingly acute psychoactive experience.

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