Despite the growing body of evidence that certain psychedelics could have legitimate uses in the treatment of various mental health disorders, most remain classified as Schedule 1 drugs, which means that research into their potential clinical uses has been virtually impossible. Even in light of studies that failed to find associations between their use and mental illness, it remains challenging to shake off the long-standing dogma that these substances are not mind-destroying drugs with no medical benefits and governments still stubbornly refuse to fund or engage with psychedelic drug research.
But perhaps the dogged efforts by psychopharmacologists to demonstrate that psychedelics have a valid place in medicine are finally starting to trigger a much needed re-consideration of attitudes, as the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has just given the go-ahead for a clinical trial to investigate the use of MDMA in treating anxiety in those with life-threatening illnesses.
MDMA is a psychoactive drug first invented back in 1912 by the pharmaceutical company Merck. It acts on the brain by causing the release of certain neurotransmitters, primarily serotonin but also norepinephrine and dopamine, which are called monoamines. It is known to trigger a variety of unique effects, such as increased extroversion and trust, but it also seems to promote acceptance of self and others and increased tolerance of upsetting situations.
Prior to being listed as a Schedule 1 drug in 1985, MDMA was actually used in combination with psychotherapy in the treatment of various psychological problems, such as neuroses and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But after its classification, the difficulties in gaining approval and funding for clinical research meant that studies virtually ceased for a number of years. But investigations began to pick up in 2000 when the California-based nonprofit research group MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) began to conduct pilot studies on its safety and efficacy in the treatment of PTSD, alongside psychotherapy.
Their published studies concluded not only that MDMA was well-tolerated and did not cause harm, but that it also resulted in significant clinical improvement in many. Furthermore, those who responded remained symptom-free in follow-up studies. Now, MAPS will conduct a small trial on the potential use of MDMA as an adjunct to psychotherapy for the treatment of anxiety in those with life-threatening illnesses.
The trial will involve 18 patients who will be given several months of psychotherapy alongside occasional administration of MDMA in some sessions. According to Al Jazeera, the trial will be conducted in a psychologist’s office rather than a hospital. The researchers hope that MDMA will enhance the effects of psychotherapy and also allow the patients to confront their situation with more clarity, offering a sense of calm and trust.
“In a psychotherapeutic context, MDMA has been reported to help subjects lower their psychological defenses and enhance their ability to process difficult emotions,” Brad Burge, communications director for MAPS, told Huffington Post. “It may also increase the sense of trust between subjects and the therapist.”
According to MAPS, the study will cost around $587,000 and so far they have managed to raise $305,000. MAPS is also hoping to raise around $20 million to make MDMA into an FDA-approved prescription drug by 2021.