Summary: Ocala.com interviews U.S. veteran and Assistant State Attorney Peter Brigham about his interest in MAPS’ research with MDMA-assisted psychotherapy to treat posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The article highlights MAPS Founder Rick Doblin, Ph.D., and his decades-long work to help restore the field of psychedelic research and therapy.
Originally appearing here.
Assistant State Attorney Peter Brigham knows about war.
Serving about seven years in the military, stationed in Europe and the Middle East, he was a first lieutenant during Desert Storm in Iraq and responsible for about 240 soldiers.
“I knew a lot of my soldiers had lingering effects of combat,” said Brigham. “But the nature of the military is nobody admits its effects, nobody admits a weakness.”
One in three returning soldiers is diagnosed with serious symptoms of post-traumatic stress, according to the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Foundation of America, a nonprofit organization that mentors combat veterans with PTSD and their families.
Brigham’s interest in the subject led him to learn about the California-based non-profit organization Multidisciplinary Association For Psychedelic Studies, known as MAPS. The group has conducted promising research in the controversial area of using the illegal drug MDMA — a purer form of the street drug Ecstasy — in alleviating PTSD in many test patients.
In a 2010 study, patients not in the placebo group took 125 milligrams of MDMA orally during two therapy sessions.
While many patients asked to recall a traumatic event faced anxiety in the process, patients who took the MDMA showed euphoria, feelings of trust and intimacy, and lower anxiety.
“I don’t want to see MDMA legalized. I don’t advocate the use of recreational drugs,” Brigham said.
But he does hope that increased awareness might lead the Department of Defense to fund more research.
As defined by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, PTSD is an emotional and behavioral disturbance that can occur after experiencing a very stressful, threatening or catastrophic event.
Symptoms can range from low-intensity distressing memories, dreams or symptoms to moderately intense intrusive images, difficulty sleeping, and depression. On the higher end of the spectrum, individuals can experience an inability to work, panic attacks, rage reactions, and suicidal actions.
In their lifetimes, 60 percent of men and 50 percent of women will experience at least one trauma. While men are likely to experience a physical assault, disaster, combat, accident or witness a death or injury, women are more likely to experience child sexual abuse and sexual assault, according to the VA.
At any given time, 24.4 million Americans — about 8 percent of the population — have PTSD, according to PTSD United, a nonprofit organization providing support and resources to those affected by PTSD.
June is National PTSD Awareness month and Saturday was National PTSD Awareness Day.
Brigham has gotten to know some of those affected with PTSD through his work as the prosecutor for Marion County’s Veterans Treatment Court, a diversion program that gets qualified veterans who served in combat areas the help they need rather than just funneling them through the criminal justice system. Participants must have PTSD, traumatic brain injury, or drug and alcohol problems as a result of combat-related service.
Those in the program range from Vietnam vets in their 60s to Iraq and Afghanistan vets in their 20s.
Brigham said some of the older people involved with Veterans Treatment Court have a more guarded reaction when talking about MDMA’s medicinal possibilities because they remember the deaths associated with the street use of Ecstasy. Combat veterans he has spoken to have been more receptive to something that might help.
Two-thirds of those in Veterans Treatment Court already have been diagnosed with PTSD, according to Brigham.
When the program’s founder, County Judge Jim McCune, approached Brigham about being part of the program, which began in the summer of 2012, he brought up PTSD. That sparked Brigham’s interest in the subject.
“When you’re an adult, it’s hard to understand how people lose their ability to think rationally,” said Brigham, highlighting something that can occur while dealing with PTSD.
His research on the subject led him to MAPS, founded in 1968. The nonprofit research and educational organization is developing medical, legal and cultural contexts for the careful uses of psychedelics.
The vision of the Santa Cruz, California-based organization is bringing about a world where psychedelics and marijuana are safely and legally available for beneficial uses, and where research is governed by rigorous scientific evaluation of their risks and benefits, according to its website.
Work with psychedelic drugs began decades ago. Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman is dubbed the “Father of LSD” for his work beginning in the 1930s with a drug that became know in the 1960s as acid. There is also evidence the Nazis experimented with mescaline on concentration camp inmates in the hopes of finding a truth serum, according to Tom Shroder’s book “Acid Test: LSD, Ecstasy and the Power to Heal,” published in 2014 by the Penguin Group. Mescaline is a drug known for producing hallucinations, much like LSD.
According to Shroder, even the CIA sought to develop psychedelic drugs for national security concerns.
Not long after he started as a freshman in 1971 at New College in Sarasota, Rick Doblin, the founder of MAPS, began reading about LSD research and one psychiatrists’s conclusion that psychedelic experiences can produce healing.
At the time the country’s political climate caused many clinical trials looking at the psychedelic effects of drugs to shutter. In 1973, President Richard Nixon declared a global war on drugs and created the Drug Enforcement Administration.
A decade later, Doblin realized an underground community of psychedelic therapists was still working with psychedelic drugs, according to Shroder.
Then Doblin began looking into MDMA, a purer form of Ecstasy, without the dangerous adulterants. When administered a limited number of times, lab studies have now shown, MDMA has proven sufficiently safe for human consumption when taken in moderate doses.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse states MDMA can increase heart rate and blood pressure, making it risky for anyone with heart disease or circulatory problems. Those using MDMA can also experience involuntary teeth clenching, nausea, blurred vision, muscle tension, faintness, chills or sweating.
The DEA decided it would designate MDMA as a “Schedule 1” drug under the Controlled Substances Act. To be in this category means no current accepted medical use for the drug exists, and that the drug has a high potential for abuse.
While the drug is illegal, over the years MAPS has persevered, and was given approval from government regulatory agencies like the DEA and Food and Drug Administration to research Schedule 1 drugs.
In April 2011, Doblin and four others published the results of the first completed clinical trial evaluating MDMA as a therapeutic adjunct in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.
In the study, 20 patients who had been suffering with chronic PTSD for an average of 19 years and had difficulty responding to psychotherapy and psychopharmacology were randomly assigned: 12 to treatment with MDMA and eight to a placebo group. The mean age was 40. Of those who received MDMA, 83 percent had their symptoms alleviated, compared with only 25 percent in the placebo group.
According to MAPS, th
ree of the subjects who were previously unable to work because of PTSD returned to work.
While an increase in blood pressure, body temperature and pulse were recorded in the group taking MDMA, the effects later subsided. Seven days after the sessions, participants in both MDMA and placebo groups stated they experiences fatigue, headache, low mood and nausea. Anxiety was slightly higher in the MDMA group. The MDMA group also reported more irritability and loss of appetite than the placebo. No serious adverse effects to the drugs were found during the trial.
Currently, MAPS is the only organization funding clinical trials addressing MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. Since the patent for MDMA has expired, pharmaceutical companies are not interested in developing the drug.
Research is also being done on MDMA therapy for autistic adults with social anxiety and being studied for its possible assistance in providing comfort to end-stage cancer patients.
MAPS is funding MDMA research with PTSD in the United States, Australia, Canada and Israel. Studies in Spain and Switzerland have already been completed. Currently the waiting list for veterans to get into a clinical trial is lengthy.
Similar positive results from these studies would give MAPS more leverage in its plan to make the FDA approve MDMA prescription medicine by 2021.
“PTSD is not simply a combat-related phenomena,” Brigham said. “I don’t know if it will work for everyone every time, it just shows promise.”