The most dangerous and delicate military operations are reserved for Special Operations Forces (SOF). Every military branch has its own elite teams; of the U.S. Military’s 1.4 million personnel, more than 33,800 are SOF. SOF soldiers conduct high-stakes offensive raids, demolitions, reconnaissance, search-and-rescue and counterterrorism missions. The high-intensity situations they encounter repeatedly can be drawn out over days or weeks. Many of them experience trauma — physical and mental — more than once in their careers, making them particularly vulnerable to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as well as cognitive impairment linked to traumatic brain injury (TBI) and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
New research from The Ohio State University (OSU) may point to a solution on both fronts. In an experiment that tested the efficacy of the psychedelics ibogaine and Dimenthyltryptamine (more commonly known as DMT) researchers found that treatment with these substances lowered rates of depression and anxiety among SOF soldiers, and improved their cognitive function. Both substances have been decriminalized in Colorado.
“What sets this group apart from some other veterans and civilians is that often, they are exposed to repeated traumatic events as a routine part of their jobs,” Alan Davis, lead author of the study, said in a press release. “This build-up of exposure to these difficulties seems to produce a cluster of challenges that include traumatic brain injury, which we know in and of itself predisposes people to mental health problems.”
Davis is an associate professor and director of the Center for Psychedelic Drug Research and Education (CPDRE) in OSU’s College of Social Work. He’s worked in academic medical centers, university clinics, community programs and long-term acute care hospitals offering psychotherapies to individuals diagnosed with substance use, trauma-related, mood and anxiety disorders.
Davis’ study, published in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, examined 86 SOF veterans with a history of trauma exposure. They all completed pre-treatment online surveys that assessed a range of mental health symptoms, satisfaction with life, anger levels and suicidality. Then they all underwent psychedelic clinical treatment and took the surveys again at one, three and six months.
From a baseline, one-month follow-up subjects showed significant improvements in self-reported PTSD symptoms, depression, anxiety and insomnia severity. Interestingly, it also showed that subjects had better post-concussive symptoms, self-reported satisfaction with life, psychological flexibility and general cognitive functioning.
“Improvements in cognitive functioning linked to brain injury were probably the most striking results because that’s something we didn’t predict, and it’s very new … in terms of how psychedelics might help in so many different domains,” Davis said in the release.
While it is a novel observation, it isn’t the first time that scientists have considered the idea that psychedelics could help treat TBI. In a mini-review published in Frontiers in 2021, researchers found that existing in vitro, in vivo and case report studies indicate that “psychedelic pharmacotherapies may influence the future of brain injury treatment through modulation of neuroinflammation, hippocampal neurogenesis, neuroplasticity and brain complexity.”
Previous research has also connected insightful and mystical psychedelic experiences with changes to psychological flexibility, as reported by this study’s respondents.
It was certainly an insightful and mystical experience for most of Davis’ test subjects. Almost half of them reported that the psychedelic experience was the most spiritually significant or psychologically insightful of their lives.
“I think we’re seeing a similar picture emerging here where the more one is psychologically flexible, the more likely it is that one’s mental health symptoms will be reduced or ameliorated,” Davis said in the release.
Davis and his team note that the observed improvements to cognitive functioning demand further research. But this study points in a positive direction. There could be a new form of treatment that could help the military’s 33,800 SOF personnel, as well as the wider 1.4 million military members, and, of course, the civilian population of the U.S. at large.