Psychedelic Science 2020 Webinar Series – Treating PTSD with MDMA-Assisted Therapy (Online)

May 21, 2020

From the event website:

Treating PTSD with MDMA-Assisted Therapy

Featuring Gül Dölen, M.D., Ph.D., and Eric Vermetten, M.D., Ph.D.

Thursday, May 21, 2020
12:00 PM – 1:30 PM Pacific

MDMA targets an evolutionarily ancient mechanisms and unlocks a critical period for social behavior
Although an octopus brain has neither a nucleus accumbens, nor a dorsal raphe, nor a cerebral cortex, recently we have shown that the acute prosocial effects of MDMA are recapitulated in Octopus bimaculoides, likely through conserved molecular mechanisms (Edsinger and Dölen, Current Biology, 2018). This finding suggests that 5-HT has served to mediate sociality since before the divergence of vertebrate and invertebrate lineages 540 million years ago and that MDMA targets these ancient mechanisms. This finding suggests that despite the substantial differences in brain anatomy, deep homology enables conservation of brain functions triggered by psychedelics. A critical period is a developmental epoch during which the nervous system is expressly sensitive to specific environmental stimuli that are required for proper circuit organization and learning. In disease states, closure of critical periods limits the ability of the brain to adapt even when optimal conditions are restored. In this context, our discovery that the psychedelic drug, MDMA, but not the psychostimulant cocaine, is able to reopen the social reward learning critical period (Nardou et al., Nature, 2019) constitutes a breakthrough for translational neuroscience. Interestingly, these studies also demonstrate that MDMA-induced reopening of the critical period for social reward learning shares a number of features with the therapeutic effects of MDMA, including: rapid onset, durability beyond the acute effects of the drug, and dependence on social setting. Taken together, these observations provide support for the provocative idea that we may have discovered the long sought-after “master key” for unlocking critical periods across the brain.

The Potential of Psychedelics for PTSD Treatment; Focus on MDMA
PTSD is a disorder that is quite prevalent in our society and difficult to treat. Most of the currently used psychotherapies for the treatment of PTSD are exposure-based therapies, which rely on imaginal visualization of the traumatic events and exposure to trauma-related cues that trigger fear responses. The role of the therapists is to instruct the patient to relive the trauma and to provide a cognitive framework for change. For some patients this is difficult, leading to non-response or treatment dropout. Engagement in psychotrauma focused therapy may be difficult for some patients, especially in cases of extreme affect dysregulation, shame or guilt associated with the recall of traumatic memories. There is a need for new treatments for PTSD for this group of patients. The use of psychedelics, in particular the entactogen MDMA may offer opportunities to support critical aspects of the psychotherapeutic process. In this webinar elements of PTSD, its neuroscience, history and exploration of the landscape towards MDMA and other psychedelics will be discussed.

Gül Dölen, M.D., Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Neuroscience, Brain Science Institute, Wendy Klag Center for Autism & Developmental Disabilities, Kavli Neuroscience Discovery Institute, the Johns Hopkins University, School of Medicine. Dr. Dölen earned her M.D., Ph.D. at Brown University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she carried out seminal work on the pathogenesis of autism. Dr. Dölen completed postdoctoral training in the Department of Psychiatry at Stanford University, where she did paradigm-shifting work on the neural circuits underlying social reward learning. In 2014, Dr. Dölen began her faculty position in the Department of Neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University, School of Medicine. Her laboratory studies the neurotransmitters, brain circuits, developmental programs, and evolution of social behaviors, with a focus on diseases of the social brain (including autism, schizophrenia, PTSD, and addiction). Recently, her lab has become interested in uncovering how in (+/-)-3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) induces prosocial behaviors across species (including humans, mice, and octopuses), as well as shedding light on the mechanisms underlying MDMA’s profound therapeutic effects. Continuing her long-standing interest in understanding the mind from philosophical, spiritual, linguistic, and artistic perspectives, Dr. Dölen currently serves on the Executive Advisory Board for the International Arts and Mind Lab at Johns Hopkins University. In addition, she serves on the editorial board for two journals: Cellular and Molecular Neurobiology (CEMN) and Social Neuroscience. Dr. Dölen is the recipient of several prestigious awards including: the Joukowsky Family Foundation Outstanding Dissertation Award, the Conquer Fragile X Rising Star Award, the Angus MacDonald Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, the Society for Social Neuroscience Early Career Award, the Searle Scholars Award, and the Johns Hopkins University President’s Frontier Award. Visit Dr. Dölen’s webpage at:

Eric Vermetten, M.D., Ph.D. (1961), is a professor of psychiatry at Leiden University Medical Center. He is a clinical psychiatrist and strategic advisor (COL) of research at the Military Mental Health Service with the Dutch Ministry of Defense, and also affiliated with ARQ Psychotrauma Research Group. He also has an Adjunct Professorship at the Department Psychiatry of New York UMC. He is trained in the Netherlands as well as in the USA (Stanford, Yale and Emory) in psychiatry and neuroscience. He has clinical as well as a research positions with a focus on medical/biological as well as psychiatric aspects of complex psychotrauma in military and civilian populations. He is well published (>200 papers) and edited several books on this topic. His last book is on World War I and Health: ‘Rethinking Resilience’. His research is in the field of stress, trauma, complex PTSD and neuroscience. He is interested in the history of war and has special focus on combining biological-based interventions in psychotraumatology with novel technology and novel drug developments. He is PI of a new research initiative on the roadmap for medication-assisted psychotherapy in Netherlands and Europe, including use of a variety of psychedelics. Prof Vermetten is an ad hoc reviewer for numerous journals and granting agencies. He has lectured on the topic of PTSD, resilience, military and veterans issues as well as novel approaches to therapy across the globe.

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