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Surprising Science

A prescription for MDMA? We’re getting closer

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

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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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