Psychedelic drugs may have medical benefits

Grant Campbell

Christopher Walker, Editor-in-Chief

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MDMA, the wildly popular, seminal party drug of the 1980s has recently made a comeback with America’s youth, riding on the coattails of the EDM craze. And with MDMA’s resurgence, scientists are revisiting why it was created in the first place as a therapeutic drug.

Dr. Albert Garcia-Romeu, a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, is currently researching the effects of psychedelic compounds, including MDMA, in human subjects. According to Garcia-Romeu, “There are a number of ways that MDMA can improve the treatment efficacy of standard psychotherapy.”

“One of the main effects that researchers are interested in is this drug’s ability to reduce the brain’s responses to fearful or negative emotional stimuli, which may facilitate the re-examination of past traumas in the therapeutic setting.”

Under the effects of MDMA, a massive amount of serotonin, the body’s “feel-good chemical,” is released. Serotonin does nothing by itself, but if the patient is forced to think and talk about traumatic events under its influence, the brain can begin to re-associate that memory with positive feelings by a process called memory reconsolidation. Under the influence of MDMA, the brain can literally rewire traumatic experiences as positive. Hence MDMA’s potentially revolutionary effect on PTSD treatment.

In fact, research conducted by Harvard University supports the premise that “A few sessions of MDMA-induced therapy can achieve in a few sessions what might take years in traditional therapeutic settings.”

While the idea of taking recreational drugs with the potential for abuse might seem like a novel idea, Garcia-Romeu counters “many widely accepted medications such as opioid painkillers and stimulants like amphetamine are used recreationally, and sometimes abused, but they are also considered useful treatments for particular conditions when taken under appropriate medical supervision. On the other hand, drugs like MDMA or LSD have largely been seen as drugs of abuse because people use them recreationally, but I don’t think this precludes them from having real therapeutic potentials.”

There are several reputable groups that are interested in promoting research into the therapeutic benefits of drugs like MDMA and other Schedule I compounds as potential clinical aids. But Romeu sees three serious hurdles for the treatment to make headway.

“First, MDMA-assisted psychotherapy is not currently an accepted treatment for PTSD in the medical community by and large. It is generally considered an experimental treatment, which has shown some promising results, but will need to be investigated further and in larger samples before being FDA approved and made available to the public.”

Secondly, some of these drugs are either naturally occurring (like cannabis and psilocybin), or off-patent (like MDMA and LSD), meaning it would be difficult if not impossible for a pharmaceutical company to profit from them.  In fact, these drugs could directly compete with widely used medications like antidepressants, thereby making adoption of psychedelic-facilitated treatments a potential risk for pharmaceutical companies who comprise a massive multi-billion dollar industry.”

Zoloft and Paxil, the traditional treatments for PTSD, can cause weight gain, sexual dysfunction and suicidal thoughts; whereas a single dose of medical-grade MDMA may only cause increases in heart rate and blood pressure during the session, and fatigue, loss of appetite and a low mood for a day or so afterward.

Not only are the side effects of traditional antidepressants worse than MDMA, but recently MDMA has been shown to be a far more effective treatment. Over the last year, four separate experiments were given the go-ahead, and 83 percent of those who have undergone this treatment were cured of their PTSD. This is over 400 percent more effective than those cured by traditional talk–based therapy sessions.

Traditional medication attempts to cover-up the wound that MDMA might heal altogether.

Finally, these treatments would require something of a paradigm shift in medicine, in part because this isn’t a simple take two of these and call me in the morning type of scenario. This is quite different from the current medical model in which many people would like to simply take a pill and for their problem to be cured.”

“Using medication-assisted treatment will require a new generation of therapists to be trained who are comfortable with and knowledgeable regarding not only the biochemistry of the substance being used, but also the altered states of consciousness they can engender, and how best to use these altered states as part of a therapeutic treatment. Nevertheless, despite all these issues, I do believe that we will see drugs like MDMA, psilocybin, and LSD being used as part of accepted medical treatments in our lifetime, and we are currently witnessing the sea change that will push us into that new era.”

At present, many psychological maladies such as PTSD, addiction and depression have less than optimal treatment options available. There are some treatments that work for some people, but the outcomes are generally less successful than we would like. Taking that into account, I think there is a real possibility that we will see further momentum of these types of approaches in the coming years. I think the medical cannabis movement has in some respects paved the way for the possibility that the medical establishment and the general public may reconsider a drug that was once thought to be mostly recreational, and see that it indeed has some therapeutic value and applications.”

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