A study using psychedelic MDMA alongside psychotherapy is making medical history. It’s been so successful that in November 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave permission for large-scale Phase 3 clinical trials. MDMA could be approved as a prescription therapy drug by 2021. (Watch as CBC reporter and PTSD sufferer Curt Petrovich takes part in this trial in Firsthand doc Lost on Arrival)
How the Therapy Works
Curt had weeks of “talk” therapy and was weaned off all other medication before his drug sessions. There were two all-day sessions, weeks apart, during which he took a placebo and…nothing happened.
Then for three sessions, again over a period of weeks, Curt was administered 125 mg of MDMA with a 62.5 mg booster a couple of hours later. The purpose of the booster was to extend the peak action of the drug, allowing more time for MDMA-enhanced psychotherapy. (See the study protocol)
During each eight-hour session, psychotherapists Dr. Donna Dryer and Dr. Richard Yensen sat beside Curt’s bed and gently worked with him to “reprocess” his traumatic memories. Dr. Yensen: “He experiences some of what he experienced before but from a different context. He’s aware that he’s in a healing space with a couple of people who are devoted to helping him unhook from the overwhelming emotion.”
How Do Psychedelics Work To Alleviate PTSD?
We don’t know exactly what effect PTSD has on the brain, but German scientist Torsten Passie posits this theory, paraphrased: Normally, sensation enters the thalamus and is distributed to higher regions of the brain for processing. Then it comes back through the thalamus and on to the hippocampus where it’s safely stored as memory. But in a traumatic experience, higher processing never happens. The experience goes directly from thalamus to hippocampus and is stored as raw experience. Brain studies show an over-active amygdala in persons with PTSD, as it works overtime trying to suppress the traumatic memory. The PTSD sufferer is constantly poised on the edge of fight or flight.
MDMA causes both a release of feel-good hormones and a suppression of fear. That enables a PTSD sufferer like Curt to safely bring forward traumatic memories. With the help of his trusted therapists, he could then send them out to the higher centres of his brain for processing.
The Growing Use of Psychedelics in Medicine
The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies study was international in scope with subjects in Israel, Switzerland, USA and Canada.
The Vancouver section of the trial was the first time in 40 years that Health Canada approved administration of a psychedelic drug. Psychedelics showed promise as psychiatric drugs as early as the 1950s but the war on drugs put a stop to research for decades.
Dr. Richard Yensen: “The war on drugs deprived the healing professions of major tools. And if those tools can come back and we can find the right context for their use, I think that we’ll be able to deal with things like PTSD more effectively than by any other means.”
MDMA and most other psychedelics are still only available as PTSD treatment in approved research trials. One exception is ketamine. Currently accepted within the medical community as a dissociative anesthetic, ketamine shows promise in PTSD treatment.
Curt’s therapists emphasize that the use of ketamine — or of any psychedelic drug — in psychotherapy requires specialized training.