A prescription for MDMA? We're getting closer

New research in PTSD might make an MDMA script reality by 2021.

A prescription for MDMA? We're getting closer
Photo by Getty Images

In the late '60s, Senator Robert F Kennedy's wife, Ethel, was reportedly treated with LSD at a Vancouver hospital, which made the politician sympathetic to psychedelic research. As the FDA planned on shutting down many ongoing research projects, Kennedy asked, “Why if [these projects] were worthwhile six months ago, why aren't they worthwhile now? Perhaps we have lost sight of the fact that [they] can be very, very helpful in our society if used properly."


The legal contention arose thanks to personalities like Timothy Leary, who promoted psychedelics as a panacea for all humankind's ills; though he was rigorous in his explanation of the ritualistic element of these substances, his outlandish marketing stunts, and less-than-academic trials irked many in the psychedelic community and, eventually, the government. When President Nixon needed distractions to throw the public off his trail (and to support racist initiatives), psychedelics became one of the first byproducts of his fear-mongering.

Yet sometimes another shift in perception is all that's needed. As Michael Pollan reports in his fascinating book on the history of psychedelics, How to Change Your Mind, current researchers were surprised to learn that, when applying for permission to clinically study psychedelics, government agencies like the FDA asked them to go beyond their original intent to seek potential therapeutic applications to a wide range of cognitive and emotional disorders.

It makes sense. So far the best response for anxiety and depression, SSRIs, are proving less effective as patients build a tolerance. As Lauren Slater explains in Blue Dreams, these drugs, designed for short-term use, reveal more side effects while losing efficacy over the course of years and decades. A disturbing list of modern ailments—anxiety, depression, addiction, pain management, PTSD—need new responses. Ideally, this will come in the form of treatments that are temporarily or occasionally employed and then discarded.

Enter MDMA, which was often used (and still is) by relationship counselors to bring couples closer together. First synthesized at Merck in Germany in 1912 for use as an appetite suppressant, MDMA stimulates serotonin in your brain to bind with other receptors, producing a stimulating and psychedelic response that lasts for a few hours. The chemist, Anton Köllisch, had been researching drugs to stop abnormal bleeding. Scientists at the time believed the euphoric feeling could clinically serve as a weight-loss tool.

That's not how it panned out, however. By the seventies, the drug hit the streets after becoming popular in relationship and psychotherapy counseling. It was banned in 1985, during the “Just Say No" era, but now, given its potential application in treating PTSD, it could legally return to the market for prescription usage by 2021.

The latest evidence comes from a study on 22 veterans, three firefighters, and one police officer, conducted by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) and published in the journal, The Lancet Psychiatry. All volunteers were diagnosed with chronic PTSD. Seventy-one percent of volunteers in the “medium dose" group of 75 milligrams reported a noticeable reduction in symptom severity. After the study was over, 68% of volunteers no longer required treatment for PTSD.

Pollan reports that these substances tamp down neural regions concerning the self while opening up participants to broader expanses beyond your singular history, helping you rewrite your narrative of yourself. While we often focus on the chemical interactions of drugs in the body, little attention is paid to how that chemistry creates the narrative element of identity, which is equally important in how you perceive existence. As Marine veteran Nicholas Blackston relates after his MDMA experience,

I was finally able to process all the dark stuff that happened. I was able to forgive myself. It was like a clean sweep.

Where our mind focuses often becomes our reality. Make of it a hell and so shall it be. The same holds true for the contentment we seek.

MAPS is currently planning Phase 3 studies on MDMA therapy. For sufferers of PTSD, a breakthrough remedy is desperately needed. The organization believes it may have found it. The quicker that others conduct their own trials, the quicker we'll get to helping those in need, ending this decades-long ban on what might be a therapy we've been sorely missing.

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Study: Unattractive people far overestimate their looks

The finding is remarkably similar to the Dunning-Kruger effect, which describes how incompetent people tend to overestimate their own competency.

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Astronomers find more than 100,000 "stellar nurseries"

Every star we can see, including our sun, was born in one of these violent clouds.

Credit: NASA / ESA via Getty Images
Surprising Science

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

An international team of astronomers has conducted the biggest survey of stellar nurseries to date, charting more than 100,000 star-birthing regions across our corner of the universe.

Stellar nurseries: Outer space is filled with clouds of dust and gas called nebulae. In some of these nebulae, gravity will pull the dust and gas into clumps that eventually get so big, they collapse on themselves — and a star is born.

These star-birthing nebulae are known as stellar nurseries.

The challenge: Stars are a key part of the universe — they lead to the formation of planets and produce the elements needed to create life as we know it. A better understanding of stars, then, means a better understanding of the universe — but there's still a lot we don't know about star formation.

This is partly because it's hard to see what's going on in stellar nurseries — the clouds of dust obscure optical telescopes' view — and also because there are just so many of them that it's hard to know what the average nursery is like.

The survey: The astronomers conducted their survey of stellar nurseries using the massive ALMA telescope array in Chile. Because ALMA is a radio telescope, it captures the radio waves emanating from celestial objects, rather than the light.

"The new thing ... is that we can use ALMA to take pictures of many galaxies, and these pictures are as sharp and detailed as those taken by optical telescopes," Jiayi Sun, an Ohio State University (OSU) researcher, said in a press release.

"This just hasn't been possible before."

Over the course of the five-year survey, the group was able to chart more than 100,000 stellar nurseries across more than 90 nearby galaxies, expanding the amount of available data on the celestial objects tenfold, according to OSU researcher Adam Leroy.

New insights: The survey is already yielding new insights into stellar nurseries, including the fact that they appear to be more diverse than previously thought.

"For a long time, conventional wisdom among astronomers was that all stellar nurseries looked more or less the same," Sun said. "But with this survey we can see that this is really not the case."

"While there are some similarities, the nature and appearance of these nurseries change within and among galaxies," he continued, "just like cities or trees may vary in important ways as you go from place to place across the world."

Astronomers have also learned from the survey that stellar nurseries aren't particularly efficient at producing stars and tend to live for only 10 to 30 million years, which isn't very long on a universal scale.

Looking ahead: Data from the survey is now publicly available, so expect to see other researchers using it to make their own observations about stellar nurseries in the future.

"We have an incredible dataset here that will continue to be useful," Leroy said. "This is really a new view of galaxies and we expect to be learning from it for years to come."

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Tiny specks of space debris can move faster than bullets and cause way more damage. Cleaning it up is imperative.

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  • The team at Clearspace, in collaboration with the European Space Agency, is on a mission to capture one such object using an autonomous spacecraft with claw-like arms. It's an expensive and very tricky mission, but one that could have a major impact on the future of space exploration.

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Catch more Just Might Work episodes on their channel:
https://www.freethink.com/shows/just-might-work

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