Pubdate: Sat, 09 Aug 2014
Source: Hamilton Spectator (CN ON)
Copyright: 2014 The Hamilton Spectator
Author: Jason Hoppins, Santa Cruz Sentinel
Page: A12
Cited: Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies(MAPS):
Bookmark: (Ecstasy)


As bizarre as it might seem, ecstasy seems to restructure a patient's 
relationship to trauma ... permanently

WHEN IT COMES to psychedelics, an under-the-radar nonprofit research 
group is opening people's minds.

The Santa Cruz-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic 
Studies (MAPS) is making serious headway toward bending the 
boundaries of modern medicine. In several American federally approved 
clinical trials, the group is effectively treating psychiatric 
disorders - notably post-traumatic stress disorder - with MDMA, 
commonly known as ecstasy.

"It permits the possibility of cures, whereas current psychiatric 
medications are about minimally reducing symptoms," said Rick Doblin, 
the Harvard-educated founder and executive director of MAPS.

"It's tragic the number of people that have PTSD that have not been 
successfully treated by currently available medication or psychotherapy."

The association, which moved from Florida five years ago, is thinking big.

For nearly three decades it has been trying to change mindsets in the 
federal government and in the medical community, and it seems to be 
on the verge of something that seemed unattainable during the heights 
of the war on drugs.

Phase 2 trials being conducted in South Carolina, Colorado, Canada 
and Israel put MAPS closer to the finish line for FDA approval of 
therapeutic MDMA use. By administering the drug to patients who've 
lived through war, sexual abuse and other traumatic events, 
therapists can help them revisit memories without the fear the 
subjects normally assign to them.

The early returns are more than positive. Studies are showing MDMA 
several times more effective than either the antidepressants Zoloft 
or Paxil at treating PTSD. And unlike those medicines, patients do 
not need to keep taking the drug to see the benefits - MDMA seems to 
permanently restructure a patient's relationship to trauma.

Brad Burge, MAPS communication director, likened MDMA to a chemical 
"security blanket," including the suppression of the amygdala, an 
area of the brain that modulates emotion and memory. Patients relive 
the memory, but in a safe context and under the guidance of a therapist.

"If you want to change somebody's relationship with their memory, or 
with their anxiety ... what it means is getting their attention on it 
in a different way, and that's often very painful during the 
treatment. People say it's the most difficult conversation, the most 
difficult time, they ever had in their life. But they do it with this 
sense of security and comfort because they do it with an experienced 
therapist," Burge said.

WORD OF THE GROUP'S work is spreading, which Burge credits to the 
success of the research. The studies are small, but more than 500 are 
on a waiting list for the South Carolina trial, and more than 250 for 
the Colorado trial.

Rachel Hope, also known as subject 7, has been though South 
Carolina-based trials. Her traumas accumulated through the years, 
including neglect and childhood sexual abuse and torture - her mother 
left her with someone she described as a "cultish" figure who turned 
out to be a pedophile. At 11, she was hit by a truck and had her face 
crushed, and while the physical damage healed, the mental scars never did.

Hope says she became intense and hyper-vigilant at a young age, a 
drive that helped her become a successful real estate developer in 
Hawaii. But she knew something was wrong, with panic attacks and 
nightmares leading her to try Western medicine, Eastern medicine, 
psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, New Age treatment, personal development 
courses, yoga and a cabinet full of medicine.

Her health was in decline. Not only did she often have trouble 
leaving the house, but her hair and nails were brittle and she had 
ulcers. She wouldn't smoke or drink, or use any drugs, in order to 
maintain as tight a grip as possible on reality.

"I spent over a million dollars out of pocket trying to get well," 
Hope said, driven in part by her growing son. But she gave up. "I 
said, 'Sorry, I'm a disabled mom.'"

An assistant decided to confront her, printing out a three-inch stack 
of protocols for PTSD trials and delivering them. She read them over 
the next few weeks, drawn to a study using a substance she'd never 
heard of: MDMA.

"What got my attention was it was so hard. Someone was trying to 
sabotage this study. There was no way they could ever meet this 
protocol," Hope said.

She volunteered and was selected. She remembers the none-too-pleasant 
sensation of taking the drug the first time - its street name, 
ecstasy, was poorly conceived, she thought. A therapist walked her 
through the memories that seemed to imprison her daily life.

"It lit up every neuron in my brain at once. I was almost 
overwhelming to me," Hope said. "It felt like it was breaking my 
heart, because I was seeing this expanded perspective on everyone, and myself.

"It was almost violent because it was like breaking me out of this 
prison of judgments and lies."

Hope said the first treatments took away 90 per cent of her symptoms. 
Follow-ups took away the final 10 per cent, and she now considers 
herself cured.

"If it wasn't for MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, I probably wouldn't be 
alive today because I was deteriorating so quickly," Hope said, 
stressing that the memories aren't gone, but her relationship to them changed.

"The treatment heightened my awareness but reduced my anxiety," Hope 
said. "I was introduced to my very, very highest self, and my highest 
self was able to kind of rewire my brain. I still know what happened, 
but my body wasn't thinking that it's going to happen again, every single day."

While she still doesn't use drugs and doesn't recommend them to 
anyone outside a clinical setting, Hope is now a champion for 
MDMA-assisted therapy. She said she owes her life to the people who 
gave MAPS money to fund the studies, and sometimes gets angry when 
she meets people who suffer now the way she once did.

"Not only that, I've come to believe this treatment is the right 
treatment for many people who suffer, from marital problems to 
depression to alcohol and drug addiction," Hope said. "It's all PTSD 
masquerading as some other issue."

JUST HOW MAPS got to this point, ducking waves of national hysteria 
and convincing rock-ribbed veterans that something they know only as 
a club drug might help, is a story of savvy and patience.

By 1982, Doblin was a devotee of the potential for psychedelic 
therapy. That's when, while on a trip to Big Sur's Esalen Institute, 
he heard about MDMA.

The drug had a background in psychotherapy, but it had hit the 
streets as a recreational shortcut to bliss. It was especially 
popular on the club and festival circuit, because it enhanced the 
sensations of music and lights, and could be a stimulant as well.

It would soon be outlawed, despite Doblin's attempts to intervene in 
the Drug Enforcement Agency's action. He organized monks, priests, 
rabbis, therapists - everyone he could think of.

"At the time the DEA criminalized it, they only knew of it as a 
recreational drug under the name ecstasy. They had no idea," Doblin 
said. "The frame that this was just young people hedonistically 
taking this drug was disrupted by all these people that didn't fit 
the stereotype."

But in 1985 it was banned as a Schedule 1 drug with no known medical 
purpose. Further setbacks came when many, including Oprah Winfrey, 
touted now-discredited brain scans purporting to show how ecstasy 
"eats" the brain. "They were images of blood flow in the brain. They 
chose to display it in the most provocative and misleading way 
possible. No scientist believes that it does that," Doblin said.

Doblin founded MAPS in Florida in 1986 - it still works off a supply 
of MDMA produced by Purdue University at that time - and for several 
years he was the only staff.

But Doblin's academic career would later hit a wall. He had trouble 
finding a school willing to entertain his idea for 
psychedelic-related graduate studies.

"My whole life for 16 years had been in one direction and then I 
couldn't follow it up anymore. So I went home and smoked a joint," 
Doblin said. "Marijuana gives you a chance to see things from a 
broader framework. And I thought, 'The politics is in the way of the science.'"

In 1998, Doblin found a mentor at Harvard's Kennedy School of 
Government, and he now has a doctorate in public policy. He still 
lives in Boston - Doblin has never lived in Santa Cruz - but a large 
staff is there.

A PHASE 3 TRIAL is the final step to widespread clinical use. MAPS 
hopes to get that study under way in 2016, targeting a 2022 
completion date. At $15 million, it would be their most ambitious 
undertaking yet.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom