Ending the Methamphetamine Crisis with Psychedelic Therapy
Clinical Trials Set to Begin at the Louisiana Addiction Research Center
by Samantha Roberts, Director of Marketing & Communication for the LSUHS Foundation
Pictured left to right: Kevin Murnane, PhD, Associate Professor of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Neuroscience, Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Director of Basic Science Research for Louisiana Addiction Research Center; Frances Vest, third-year PhD candidate; James C. Patterson II, MD, PhD, Professor and Chairman of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine, Clinical Research Director of Louisiana Addiction Research Center
When Dr. James Patterson, Chair of the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Medicine, began his career at LSU Health Shreveport in 2000, he saw about three to five patients daily for mental health-related issues in the emergency room. Today, Dr. Patterson sees between 20-25 patients. More than half of the patients share one problem – they are addicted to methamphetamine, commonly known as meth. Patterson provides patients with what he describes as a “band-aid” fix and sends them to a detox facility, knowing they will most likely relapse again, as there is currently no Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved treatment for methamphetamine addiction.
Dr. Nicholas Goeders, Professor and Chair of Pharmacology, Toxicology & Neuroscience, has specialized in addiction research for over 40 years and has seen an alarming growth rate in methamphetamine users in Shreveport. Dr. Goeders serves on the Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse (CADA) of NWLA’s board and has seen firsthand the devastation methamphetamine addiction has had on Shreveport’s population over the past several years.
Driven by their passion for solving this growing crisis in Shreveport and throughout Louisiana, Dr. Goeders, together with Dr. Patterson, founded the Louisiana Addiction Research Center (LARC) at LSU Health Shreveport to radically improve models of care and intervention for those with addiction. Their inspiring vision led Dr. Kevin Murnane, Associate Professor of Pharmacology, Toxicology & Neuroscience, to move from his long-time home in Atlanta to Shreveport to help address this crisis. Since its inception three years ago, LARC has become a leader in addiction research and is the only state-approved addiction center with the mission of serving all communities across the entire state of Louisiana.
Dr. Murnane describes methamphetamine as “an extremely addictive poison” that destroys a person physically and mentally. It is the #1 cause of drug-related overdose in Louisiana, as well as in many states west of the Mississippi River. While Drs. Patterson and Goeders knew methamphetamine use was on the rise in Shreveport, tracking the actual use amount among the population was difficult. “Many people who use methamphetamine do not want to disclose that information in a medical setting, while others may not know all the drugs they are using,” said Murnane.
Dr. Goeders knew that wastewater technology was a reliable metric to track the precise amount of methamphetamine use in Shreveport, so he turned to Dr. Murnane. “The best technology we have is wastewater testing. You can test a whole community objectively because anyone using methamphetamine expels the chemicals in wastewater,” stated Dr. Murnane. With support from the Caddo Parish Commission and the Community Foundation of North Louisiana, LARC received the funding to begin wastewater testing in 2020. For the past two years, the City of Shreveport Water Department has collected samples in three Shreveport communities.
When LARC received the initial test results, they expected to see high levels of methamphetamine in the wastewater. However, Dr. Murnane describes the results as “beyond shocking.” “We saw that Shreveport had 2-3 times higher numbers than any other place in the country, including many places known as hot spots of heavy use,” said Murnane. “In Shreveport, there are significant levels of opioid, cocaine and other substance use, but the methamphetamine levels are overwhelming.”
What makes Shreveport so susceptible to this kind of problem? “It’s not just one thing, but many things that create a large set of vulnerabilities,” shares Murnane, citing several factors, including Shreveport’s location on a major drug trafficking corridor and extreme poverty and high incarceration rates, which have led to a sizeable generational trauma burden. Shreveport’s demographics play a significant role as well. Methamphetamine use is historically high within rural European American communities, and use rates are increasing among African Americans. Native Americans have the highest rates of overdose and death from methamphetamine use. Shreveport is home to all of these communities.
Despite the negative and far-reaching problems Shreveport faces when dealing with the methamphetamine crisis, the Louisana Addiction Research Center’s leadership is passionately pursuing a solution. “We have a solution that is one of the most promising treatments that I have seen in my 20 years of addiction research,” said Dr. Murnane. Murnane says the answer may be psychedelic therapy. Psychedelics are a long-known class of drugs, including lysergic acid diethylamine or LSD, psilocybin from Psilocybe and other mushrooms and mescaline from peyote cacti. Native populations in both North and South America used psychedelics for thousands of years to produce resilience and improve mental health and social function. In the 1940s and 1950s, psychedelics were used in routine clinical practice to treat alcoholism, existential distress and other aspects of mental health.
During the “counter-culture” revolution in the 1960s, psychedelics became widely used outside scientific and medical constructs, and advocates pushed for their use outside of carefully designed and medically supervised conditions. Then, in an attempt to mitigate harm from this overreach and inappropriate use of psychedelics, the United States government heavily restricted their use and research on these drugs by placing them on Schedule 1 under the Controlled Substances Use. In part because of this heavy restriction, psychedelics have had a negative connotation for the last two generations. LARC wants to use state-of-the-art research and the world-class infrastructure at LSU Health Shreveport to determine whether psychedelics can be used safely in our communities and to objectively assess whether they are effective in treating methamphetamine addiction.
Psychedelic therapy has experienced a renaissance in the past few years, thanks in part to a close colleague of Dr. Murnane’s. Matthew W. Johnson, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins University, has been instrumental in this research and has published his findings citing psilocybin, commonly known as “magic mushrooms,” in treating tobacco dependence. Johnson found that a single dose of psilocybin, under the care of trained clinicians, eliminated cigarette smoking in more than 80% of participants for many months after this single treatment.
Peter Hendricks, PhD, Professor of Public Health at the University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB), has seen similar results using psilocybin to treat cocaine addiction. UAB’s clinical trials show very promising results with individuals who have been addicted to cocaine for decades and have tried many other conventional treatment options.
“This research is incredibly promising for us when it comes to treating methamphetamine addiction here in Shreveport,” said Dr. Murnane. “The Louisiana Addiction Research Center is excited to bring psychedelic therapy clinical trials to LSU Health Shreveport this year.”
LARC has already received substantial financial support from donors passionate about psychedelic therapy for addiction. “This is some of the most powerful philanthropy we have seen at LSU Health Shreveport,” said Jesse Gilmore, VP for Development at the LSU Health Shreveport Foundation. “LARC has a huge problem to solve, but it also has brilliant minds and incredible resources and infrastructure. That’s what makes these clinical trials so inspiring to outside stakeholders who want to see this epidemic resolved. We hope that the local community will step forward and support this cause too.”
Clinical trials will soon be underway. Frances Vest, a third-year PhD candidate in Dr. Murnane’s lab, developed the protocol for the clinical trials under the guidance of Drs. Murnane and Patterson. For the first set of studies, LARC will partner with Uprising Addiction Center, an inpatient treatment facility in Shreveport focused on a holistic approach to treating addiction. As the lead graduate student for the ongoing and upcoming clinical trials, Vest has worked with CADA and Uprising Addiction Center since June 2021, studying neurocognitive changes as well as structural and functional brain changes in people receiving treatment for methamphetamine addiction.
“The opportunity for clinical research is what motivated me to complete my PhD at LSU Health Shreveport,” said Vest, who interned with Dr. Murnane as a Biopsychology undergraduate at Oglethorpe University. “I have always had a passion for helping people struggling with addiction, especially those who have tried everything and have no other support. It is a dream come true to be part of these clinical trial studies.” Throughout these trials, Vest will be involved with screening candidates for the study and analyzing the results.
Participants will receive either psilocybin or another psychedelic compound, 5-MeO-DMT. “While psilocybin is more commonly known, its effects last 6-8 hours and will ultimately be more expensive for patients,” said Murnane. “5-MeO-DMT, on the other hand, lasts 45 minutes and would be a more practical option. Our goal is to reduce barriers to access so that everyone suffering from addiction has a chance for a better life.”
Patients will receive several counseling sessions with a trusted therapist before being administered psychedelics. In addition, LARC is busy preparing the Clinical Research Center at LSU Health Shreveport to be a relaxing, safe and comfortable environment for patients. Dr. Peter Hendricks from UAB will serve as the Clinical Advisor during the clinical trials and will help train the psychiatry faculty, clinicians and partnering treatment centers.
The Louisiana Addiction Research Center hopes to change the narrative of addiction through its research. “The wastewater study showed just how prevalent methamphetamine use is in our community,” said Murnane. “People often have a false, dangerous and counterproductive idea of drug users in their mind, but addiction affects everyone, every family and every community. Addiction tears apart families, increases crime and creates a heavy trauma burden for generations. We hope LSU Health Shreveport and this community can serve as a model of an effective solution to this crisis for the rest of the United States.”