Monnica Williams was stuck. The veteran psychologist wanted to conduct a study using psychedelics, but her university told her they didn't have the expertise to evaluate it via an institutional review board, which is responsible for providing ethical and regulatory oversight for research that involves human participants. Instead, they directed her to a hospital, whose reviewers turned it down, citing research of a banned substance as unethical.
"I said, 'We're not using illegal psilocybin, we're going through Health Canada,'" Williams said. Psilocybin was banned in Canada in 1974, but can now be obtained with an exemption from Health Canada, the federal government's health policy department. After learning this, the hospital review board told Williams they couldn't review her proposal because she's not affiliated with the hospital, after all.
It's all part of balancing bureaucracy with research goals for Williams, a leading expert on racial trauma and psychedelic medicine, as well as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), at the University of Ottawa. She's exploring the use of hallucinogenic substances like MDMA and psilocybin — commonly known as ecstasy and magic mushrooms, respectively — to help people of color address the psychological impacts of systemic racism. A prolific researcher, Williams also works as an expert witness, offering clinical evaluations for racial trauma cases.
Scientists have long known that psychedelics produce an altered state of consciousness and openness to new perspectives. For people with mental health conditions who haven't benefited from traditional therapy, psychedelics may be able to help them discover what's causing their pain or trauma, including racial trauma—the mental and emotional injury spurred by racial bias.
"Using psychedelics can not only bring these pain points to the surface for healing, but can reduce the anxiety or response to these memories and allow them to speak openly about them without the pain they bring," Williams says. Her research harnesses the potential of psychedelics to increase neuroplasticity, which includes the brain's ability to build new pathways.
"People of color are dealing with racism all the time, in large and small ways, and even dealing with racism in healthcare, even dealing with racism in therapy."
But she says therapists of color aren't automatically equipped to treat racial trauma. First, she notes, people of color are "vastly underrepresented in the mental health workforce." This is doubly true in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, in which a person is guided through a psychedelic session by a therapist or team of therapists, then processes the experience in subsequent therapy sessions.
"On top of that, the therapists of color are getting the same training that the white therapists are getting, so it's not even really guaranteed that they're going to be any better at helping a person that may have racial trauma emerging as part of their experience," she says.
In her own training to become a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia, Williams says she was taught "how to be a great psychologist for white people." Yet even people of color, she argues, need specialized training to work with marginalized groups, particularly when it comes to MDMA, psilocybin and other psychedelics. Because these drugs can lower natural psychological defense mechanisms, Williams says, it's important for providers to be specially trained.
"People of color are dealing with racism all the time, in large and small ways, and even dealing with racism in healthcare, even dealing with racism in therapy. So [they] generally develop a lot of defenses and coping strategies to ward off racism so that they can function." she says. This is particularly true with psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy: "One possibility is that you're going to be stripped of your defenses, you're going to be vulnerable. And so you have to work with a therapist who is going to understand that and not enact more racism in their work with you."
Williams has struggled to find funding and institutional approval for research involving psychedelics, or funding for investigations into racial trauma or the impacts of conditions like OCD and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in people of color. With the bulk of her work focusing on OCD, she hoped to focus on people of color, but found there was little funding for that type of research. In 2020, that started to change as structural racism garnered more media attention.
After the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, by a white police officer in May 2020, Williams was flooded with media requests. "Usually, when something like that happens, I get contacted a lot for a couple of weeks, and it dies off. But after George Floyd, it just never did."
Monnica Williams, clinical psychologist at the University of Ottawa
Williams was no stranger to the questions that soon blazed across headlines: How can we mitigate microaggressions? How do race and ethnicity impact mental health? What terms should we use to discuss racial issues? What constitutes an ally, and why aren't there more of them? Why aren't there more people of color in academia, and so many other fields?
Now, she's hoping that the increased attention on racial justice will mean more acceptance for the kind of research she's doing.
In fact, Williams herself has used psychedelics in order to gain a better understanding of how to use them to treat racial trauma. In a study published in January, she and two other Black female psychotherapists took MDMA in a supervised setting, guided by a team of mental health practitioners who helped them process issues that came up as the session progressed. Williams, who was also the study's lead author, found that participants' experiences centered around processing and finding release from racial identities, and, in one case, of simply feeling wholly human without the burden of racial identity for the first time.
The purpose of the study was twofold: to understand how Black women react to psychedelics and to provide safe, firsthand, psychedelic experiences to Black mental health practitioners. One of the other study participants has since gone on to offer psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy to her own patients.
Psychedelic research, and psilocybin in particular, has become a hot topic of late, particularly after Oregon became the first state to legalize it for therapeutic use last November. A survey-based, observational study with 313 participants, published in 2020, paved the way for Williams' more recent MDMA experiments by describing improvements in depression, anxiety and racial trauma among people of color who had used LSD, psilocybin or MDMA in a non-research setting.
Williams and her team included only respondents who reported a moderate to strong psychoactive effect of past psychedelic consumption and believed these experiences provided "relief from the challenging effects of ethnic discrimination." Participants reported a memorable psychedelic experience as well as its acute and lasting effects, completing assessments of psychological insight, mystical experience and emotional challenges experienced during psychedelic experience, then describing their mental health — including depression, anxiety and trauma symptoms — before and after that experience.
Still, Williams says addressing racism is much more complex than treating racial trauma. "One of the questions I get asked a lot is, 'How can Black people cope with racism?' And I don't really like that question," she says. "I think it's important and I don't mind answering it, but I think the more important question is, how can we end racism? What can Black people do to stop racism that's happening to them and what can we do as a society to stop racism? And people aren't really asking this question."
Jessica Ware is obsessed with bugs.
My guest today is a leading researcher on insects, the president of the Entomological Society of America and a curator at the American Museum of Natural History. Learn more about her here.
You may not think that insects and human health go hand-in-hand, but as Jessica makes clear, they’re closely related. A lot of people care about their health, and the health of other creatures on the planet, and the health of the planet itself, but researchers like Jessica are studying another thing we should be focusing on even more: how these seemingly separate areas are deeply entwined. (This is the theme of an upcoming event hosted by Leaps.org and the Aspen Institute.)
Listen to the Episode
Entomologist Jessica Ware
D. Finnin / AMNH
Maybe it feels like a core human instinct to demonize bugs as gross. We seem to try to eradicate them in every way possible, whether that’s with poison, or getting out our blood thirst by stomping them whenever they creep and crawl into sight.
But where did our fear of bugs really come from? Jessica makes a compelling case that a lot of it is cultural, rather than in-born, and we should be following the lead of other cultures that have learned to live with and appreciate bugs.
The truth is that a healthy planet depends on insects. You may feel stung by that news if you hate bugs. Reality bites.
Jessica and I talk about whether learning to live with insects should include eating them and gene editing them so they don’t transmit viruses. She also tells me about her important research into using genomic tools to track bugs in the wild to figure out why and how we’ve lost 50 percent of the insect population since 1970 according to some estimates – bad news because the ecosystems that make up the planet heavily depend on insects. Jessica is leading the way to better understand what’s causing these declines in order to start reversing these trends to save the insects and to save ourselves.
The first thing Jeroen Perk saw after he partially regained his sight nearly a decade ago was the outline of his guide dog Pedro.
“There was a white floor, and the dog was black,” recalls Perk, a 43-year-old investigator for the Dutch customs service. “I was crying. It was a very nice moment.”
Perk was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa as a child and had been blind since early adulthood. He has been able to use the implant placed into his retina in 2013 to help identify street crossings, and even ski and pursue archery. A video posted by the company that designed and manufactured the device indicates he’s a good shot.
Less black-and-white has been the journey Perk and others have been on after they were implanted with the Argus II, a second-generation device created by a Los Angeles-based company called Second Sight Medical Devices.
The Argus II uses the implant and a video camera embedded in a special pair of glasses to provide limited vision to those with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease that causes cells in the retina to deteriorate. The camera feeds information to the implant, which sends electrical impulses into the retina to recapitulate what the camera sees. The impulses appear in the Argus II as a 60-pixel grid of blacks, grays and whites in the user’s eye that can render rough outlines of objects and their motion.
Smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Ross Doerr, a retired disability rights attorney in Maine who received an Argus II in 2019, describes the field of vision as the equivalent of an index card held at arm’s length. Perk often brings objects close to his face to decipher them. Moreover, users must swivel their heads to take in visual data; moving their eyeballs does not work.
Despite its limitations, the Argus II beats the alternative. Perk no longer relies on his guide dog. Doerr was uplifted when he was able to see the outlines of Christmas trees at a holiday show.
“The fairy godmother department sort of reaches out and taps you on the shoulder once in a while,” Doerr says of his implant, which came about purely by chance. A surgeon treating his cataracts was partnered with the son of another surgeon who was implanting the devices, and he was referred.
Doerr had no reason to believe the shower of fairy dust wouldn’t continue. Second Sight held out promises that the Argus II recipients’ vision would gradually improve through upgrades to much higher pixel densities. The ability to recognize individual faces was even touted as a possibility. In the winter of 2020, Doerr was preparing to travel across the U.S. to Second Sight’s headquarters to receive an upgrade. But then COVID-19 descended, and the trip was canceled.
The pandemic also hit Second Sight’s bottom line. Doerr found out about its tribulations only from one of the company’s vision therapists, who told him the entire department was being laid off. Second Sight cut nearly 80% of its workforce in March 2020 and announced it would wind down operations.
Ross Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market.
Second Sight’s implosion left some 350 Argus recipients in the metaphorical dark about what to do if their implants failed. Skeleton staff seem to have rarely responded to queries from their customers, at least based on the experiences of Perk and Doerr. And some recipients have unfortunately returned to the actual dark as well, as reports have surfaced of Argus II failures due to aging or worn-down parts.
Product support for complex products is remarkably uneven. Although the iconic Ford Mustang ceased production in the late 1960s, its parts market is so robust that it’s theoretically possible to assemble a new vehicle from recently crafted components. Conversely, smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. Consumers have accepted both extremes.
But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Margaret McLean, a senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California, notes companies like Second Sight have a greater obligation for product support than other consumer product ventures.
“In this particular case, you have a great deal of risk that is involved in using this device, the implant, and the after care of this device,” she says. “You cannot, like with your car, decide that ‘I don’t like my Mustang anymore,’ and go out and buy a Corvette.”
And, whether the Argus II implant works or not, its physical presence can impact critical medical decisions. Doerr’s doctor wanted him to undergo an MRI to assist in diagnosing attacks of vertigo. But the physician was concerned his implant might interfere. With the latest available manufacturer advisories on his implant nearly a decade old, the procedure was held up. Doerr spent months importuning Second Sight through phone calls, emails and Facebook postings to learn if his implant was contraindicated with MRIs, which he never received. Although the cause of his vertigo was found without an MRI, Doerr was hardly assured.
“Put that into context for a minute. I get into a serious car accident. I end up in the emergency room, and I have a tag saying I have an implanted medical device,” he says. “You can’t do an MRI until you get the proper information from the company. Who’s going to answer the phone?”
Second Sight’s management did answer the call to revamp its business. It netted nearly $78 million through a private stock placement and an initial public offering last year. At the end of 2021, Second Sight had nearly $70 million in cash on hand, according to a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
And while the Argus II is still touted at length on Second Sight’s home page, it appears little of its corporate coffers are earmarked toward its support. These days, the company is focused on obtaining federal approvals for Orion, a new implant that would go directly into the recipient’s brain and could be used to remedy blindness from a variety of causes. It obtained a $6.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health in May 2021 to help develop Orion.
Presented with a list of written questions by email, Second Sight’s spokesperson, Dave Gentry of the investor relations firm Red Chip Companies, copied a subordinate with an abrupt message to “please handle.” That was the only response from a company representative. A call to Second Sight acting chief executive officer Scott Dunbar went unreturned.
Whether or not the Orion succeeds remains to be seen. The company’s SEC filings suggest a viable and FDA-approved device is years away, and that operational losses are expected for the “foreseeable future.” Second Sight reported zero revenue in 2020 or 2021.
Moreover, the experiences of the Argus II recipients could color the reception of future Second Sight products. Doerr notes that his insurer paid nearly $500,000 to implant his device and for training on how to use it.
“What’s the insurance industry going to say the next time this crops up?” Doerr asks, noting that the company’s reputation is “completely shot” with the recipients of its implants.
Perk, who made speeches to praise the Argus II and is still featured in a video on the Second Sight website, says he also no longer supports the company.
Jeroen Perk, an investigator for the Dutch customs service, cried for joy after partially regaining his sight, but he no longer trusts Second Sight, the company that provided his implant.
Nevertheless, Perk remains highly reliant on the technology. When he dropped an external component of his device in late 2020 and it broke, Perk briefly debated whether to remain blind or find a way to get his Argus II working again. Three months later, he was able to revive it by crowdsourcing parts, primarily from surgeons with spare components or other Argus II recipients who no longer use their devices. Perk now has several spare parts in reserve in case of future breakdowns.
Despite the frantic efforts to retain what little sight he has, Perk has no regrets about having the device implanted. And while he no longer trusts Second Sight, he is looking forward to possibly obtaining more advanced implants from companies in the Netherlands and Australia working on their own products.
Doerr suggests that biotech firms whose implants are distributed globally be bound to some sort of international treaty requiring them to service their products in perpetuity. Such treaties are still applied to the salvage rights for ships that sunk centuries ago, he notes.
“I think that in a global tech economy, that would be a good thing,” says McLean, the fellow at Santa Clara, “but I am not optimistic about it in the near term. Business incentives push toward return on share to stockholders, not to patients and other stakeholders. We likely need to rely on some combination of corporately responsibility…and [international] government regulation. It’s tough—the Paris Climate Accord implementation at a slow walk comes to mind.”
Unlike Perk, Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market. At 70, Doerr says he does not have the time or energy to hold the company more accountable. And with Second Sight having gone through a considerable corporate reorganization, Doerr believes a lawsuit to compel it to better serve its Argus recipients would be nothing but an extremely costly longshot.
“It’s corporate America at its best,” he observes.