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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A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

Harvard study finds perfect blend of fruits and vegetables to lower risk of death

Eating veggies is good for you. Now we can stop debating how much we should eat.

Credit: Pixabay
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The common cuttlefish

Credit: Hans Hillewaert via Wikicommons
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