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New research suggests MDMA could be used to treat alcoholism

Yet another study shows the potential efficacy of psychedelics in treating addiction.

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
  • MDMA could help alcoholics break their addiction (and not relapse) suggests a new study in the UK.
  • Ketamine became the first FDA-sanctioned psychedelic for use in treating depression earlier this year.
  • The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) organization hopes to have legally prescribed MDMA on the shelves by 2021.

When John Hopkins professor Roland Griffiths and NYU professor Stephen Ross brought a unique study on psilocybin's efficacy in treating cancer patients' existential distress to the FDA, they were surprised when the government agency asked them to expand their focus and ambition. Recognizing that SSRIs are not working in treating mental health disorders, the FDA was willing to explore other avenues — even a Schedule 1 drug like "magic mushrooms."

When Michael Pollan contacted the FDA while reporting for his book on psychedelics, How to Change Your Mind, the agency refused to confirm or deny this account due to its longstanding practice of not discussing substances under regulatory review. Still, this marks an important advancement in our broader understanding of the potential benefits of psychedelics.

Let's face it: until the twentieth century, these substances, predominantly used in ritual for all of recorded history (and likely longer), were generally not viewed as dangerous. In fact, it has been long been argued that they're necessary for personal and societal therapy.

Even more modern incarnations, such as LSD and MDMA, affect the same (or similar) serotonin circuits as psilocybin and DMT. Sanctioned drugs, such as alcohol, cigarettes, and sugar, have proven far more damaging to our health than the class of substances known as psychedelics.

MDMA is not always broadly considered a psychedelic, given that it does not provoke the same hallucinations or altered consciousness as other "trips." Yet MDMA binds to the same serotonin-2a receptor (the "mystical experience" receptor) as LSD and psilocybin, as well as dopamine receptors, accounting for the intense euphoria.

Is MDMA psychiatry’s antibiotic? | Ben Sessa | TEDxUniversityofBristol

All of these substances have been used recently in addiction treatment. As Pollan notes, MDMA specifically was being used to treat alcoholism back in the fifties and sixties, before sanctioned studies were commissioned. It was only due to Nixon's racist profiling that these class of drugs were deemed Schedule 1.

Now that the first study on MDMA's role in treating alcoholism is complete, it turns out that the longstanding anecdotal evidence might bear fruit. Led by Ben Sessa, a senior research fellow at Imperial College London, the team studied seven volunteers during an eight-week MDMA-assisted psychotherapy course to see if it would help curb their alcoholism. This preliminary paper focuses on four volunteers who have completed the course.

While this is an extremely small sample size, it does open the door for further studies, which is the general aim of such research. Given the tenuous nature of psychedelic research due to the drugs' illegality, governments (and the public) have to be brought in slowly, even as advocates can vouch for their value.

Simply put, we need better interventions. As the team notes, 6 percent of men and 2 percent of women in England are alcohol-dependent; a quarter of the population has an abusive relationship to alcohol. As a depressant, alcohol also heavily influences mental and emotional health. It is often a chicken-and-egg scenario in regards to mental health and alcoholism, but one thing is certain: drinking doesn't help.

Roland R. Griffiths, Ph.D., is a professor in the departments of Psychiatry and Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. He studies the effects of psychoactive drugs on the mind in his lab which is set up to look like a living room.

Photo by Andre Chung for The Washington Post via Getty Images

The total cost of alcohol-related problems in England, ranging from health disorders and domestic problems to crime and accidents, is £20 billion. Current treatment methods are insubstantial. Relapse rates there are 60 percent after one year, jumping to 80 percent after three years.

For this study, the patients received ten therapeutic sessions. Eight were non-drug psychotherapy sessions. The other two, administered during weeks three and six, included 125 mg doses of MDMA (with an optional 62.5 mg "booster" dose after two hours).

None of the volunteers experienced adverse effects during or after the course, nor did they return to drinking. Importantly, none felt any craving for MDMA after the study's conclusion. As one participant commented, the drug itself was more a mediator than anything:

It's not about the drinking, the MDMA healed me inside and the drinking looks after itself … I'm seeing things anew, nature for the first time … I'm in control of my decisions, I've got control back … Life is just good!

Comments from other participants include the feeling of a "weight being lifted off my shoulders" and "being under MDMA was beautiful. It showed me the real me; the me without alcohol."

Now the team is calling for twenty volunteers with alcohol dependency in order to conduct another study. Separating the actual efficacy of psychedelics and its sordid legal status and past fear-mongering will take time, but hopefully not too much. Earlier this year, ketamine became the first FDA-approved psychedelic to be legally prescribed.

The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) has trained its sights on legal MDMA by 2021. Given the emerging science on the topic, such a goal is within reach. That's good news for addicts that feel their time is running out.


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Hulu's original movie "Palm Springs" is the comedy we needed this summer

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.

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Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

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Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
Mind & Brain
  • A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
  • This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.

Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

Economists show how welfare programs can turn a "profit"

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Politics & Current Affairs
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