Is E Good for the Brain?

Some shrinks—and military officials—believe ecstasy may be penicillin for the soul

By Alex Roslin
FALL 2007

Is E penicillin for the soul? Maybe not if you’re George Bush or the DEA. But growing numbers of shrinks and families of folks with psychological problems say ecstasy is pretty much a Holy Grail of mental-health drugs.

No one’s been able to research the magical “love drug” since the U.S. banned it in 1988. But times they is a-changin’. MDMA, the scientific name for E, is being studied for the first time to help people who are depressed, majorly stressed or suffering from post-traumatic stress like soldiers and cops.

And get this: the studies have the U.S. government’s stamp of approval.

Early results are nothing short of miraculous; they threaten to blow people’s ideas about the drug’s safety and usefulness wide open and stick a finger in the eye of the war on drugs.

The patients’ stories are heavy. An Israeli man who survived a terrorist bombing that killed 10 people was suffering from post-traumatic stress. Therapy and various psychiatric drugs weren’t helping. He took some MDMA at a party and finally managed to calm his anxieties for the first time.

Shane, 25, took E with his girlfriend Sue after he was diagnosed with terminal kidney cancer that had spread through his body. The cancer caused the couple so much stress they almost broke up. They dimmed the lights and sat on the couch chilling to quiet music waiting for the E to take hold. “We both noticed an extreme calm and relaxation wash over us,” Shane said later. They held each other and cried, realizing for the first time they had been pushing each other away because they were so scared.

“It was a closeness I hadn’t felt in a long time with him,” Sue said. “We grew physically closer and felt a need to touch. It was in no way sexual—it was almost like a desire to be inside of each other.”

The session changed their lives. “By having ‘broken the law’ and done MDMA together, we have the chance to bring a lifetime of love and understanding into our short time together,” Sue wrote later in a testimonial.

If Rick Doblin has his way, people like Sue and Shane won’t have to break the law to get help from E. Preliminary results from the studies show MDMA can help even hardcore patients who were thought to be untreatable, says Doblin, the president of the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which is sponsoring the five MDMA studies.

“We had dramatic results in almost everybody—multiple times greater than with the standard treatments,” he said. “When they’re done, (the patients) wouldn’t qualify to be in the study any longer. They can return to normal functionality.”

One study nearing completion involved 15 people with moderate to severe post-traumatic stress due to sexual assault and other violent crimes. It included only people who didn’t respond to conventional therapy or the two drugs normally given to such patients—Paxil and Zoloft.

“So far, we’re seeing a greater effect than what was found with the Paxil and Zoloft trials. It’s looking very promising,” said Dr. Michael Mithoefer, a South Carolina psychiatrist doing the study at his clinic.

What’s the MDMA secret? Mithoefer said it seems to help people overcome their mistrust and fears and get in touch with their own “healing intelligence” to process their trauma. “They tend to feel, ‘Okay, I can do this. I can actually talk in detail about the trauma and I won’t be overwhelmed by the fear,’” he said. “People have the fear that if I go there I’ll start crying and never stop or go crazy.” That’s a big problem, he said, because patients need to revisit the trauma as part of healing.

The patients take a 125-milligram dose of MDMA on two or three occasions as part of a series of therapy sessions. They wear eyeshades and listen to soft music and are encouraged to go into their emotions. Mithoefer doesn’t say much until the patient is ready to talk.

“It’s fundamentally different from other kinds of medications,” Doblin said. “It’s not about forgetting the trauma or just taking painkillers and trying to ignore it, but finding a deeper level of acknowledgement.”

Before you go out and pop some E to get your head straight, remember these studies are being done in a controlled setting in the presence of a specially trained therapist who helps patients deal with the heavy emotions that MDMA can release. And it can get pretty intense.

“Some subjects said, ‘I don’t know why you call this ecstasy.’ It may be a difficult and challenging experience,” said Mithoefer.

Dr. George Greer, a New Mexico psychiatrist, prescribed MDMA to 80 patients in the 1980s when it was legal and said it had amazing effects. “Virtually all of them thought it was helpful,” he said. “When I gave it to a couple, every time the communication improved and it improved the relationship.”

Greer called the 1988 ban on ecstasy “a huge blow.” He sued the DEA to be allowed to keep giving it to patients, but the DEA overruled a court judgement in his favour.

He is now medical director at the Heffter Research Institute, which is sponsoring research into therapeutic uses of psilocybin—the active ingredient in magic mushrooms—for helping people with obsessive-compulsive disorder and end-of-life stress from terminal illnesses.

“The theory is it resets the serotonin receptors so they’re more balanced and you don’t have obsessive-compulsive symptoms,” said Greer.

One of the patients in the study was Pamela Sakuda, who was suffering a lot of anxiety after she was diagnosed with cancer and given six to 14 months to live. A single psilocybin session allowed Sakuda to let go of much of her stress and “understand how precious the present was,” said her husband, Norbert Litzinger.

Three hours into the trip, Litzinger was asked to come to the hospital room where his wife having her session. “She was just glowing,” he said. “Her first words were, ‘I love you.’ I said, ‘I love you, too. How are you feeling?’ She said, ‘Just wonderful.’

“She realized we had stopped making plans because she expected to die, so what’s the purpose of making plans? That was gone. She said, ‘Let’s make plans.’”

Notzinger said his wife turned the last two years of her life into a blur of activity filled with traveling, clubbing into the wee hours of the morning, weight-lifting and power-walking 40 kilometres a day; she also became an activist petitioning for the therapeutic uses of psychedelic drugs and marijuana, for which she also got a permit because of her cancer.

Along with the MDMA studies, MAPS is also sponsoring research into psilocybin, LSD and ibogaine, a super-intense hallucinogen that makes an acid trip feel like a wine cooler buzz. Ibogaine is thought to help reduce heroin addiction and alcoholism.

Doblin says he’s getting calls from the U.S. military about the research and hopes to recruit Iraq war vets and cops to the MDMA studies. Military officials think MDMA could help some of the 216,000 vets suffering from post-traumatic stress, mostly dating back to Vietnam, he said. Treating them costs $4.3 billion U.S. a year, and soon a new crop of vets from Iraq and Afghanistan is expected to enter the system. It’s estimated 30 percent of combat soldiers suffer from PTSD.

“How many of those people could be taken off the disabled lists?” asks Doblin.

But all this research is meeting a lot of resistance from the all-powerful U.S. drug-war lobby. Even though MAPS got an ok from the Food and Drug Administration to start its MDMA research in 2001, it took another three years to get approval from the squareheads at the Drug Enforcement Agency. “The DEA was really tough,” Doblin said. “They just delayed and delayed and delayed.”

The approval process included studying the safety of MDMA. Contrary to all the horror stories about how E will rot your brain, MAPS was able to show it’s safe for human testing and that any risks are “minimal,” said Dobin. “There is absolutely no evidence MDMA is hurting (the patients). It seems like it’s quite safe.”

Mind you, there’s also a difference between taking E in a clinical setting, where the purity and dose are controlled, and a club, where you don’t always know what you’re getting and people can abuse the drug, said Mithoefer.

“Our main purpose was to see if it’s safe for use with patients, and we are seeing it is,” he said. “The large majority of drugs we use in medicine can be dangerous if used inappropriately.”

Once the final data is in sometime in 2008, the next step will be to get government approval for full-scale testing on 250 to 300 patients. If successful, Doblin hopes science will trump drug-war politics and MDMA will be approved for use in therapy. One of the obstacles, he said, is the fact that pharmaceutical companies can’t get a patent on MDMA, which means there’s not a lot of money to be made off it.

“We’re trying to get the politics out of the way,” Doblin explains. “Our goal is for MDMA to be taken for granted and for people to ask, ‘Why was this ever illegal?’”

For more info:
Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies
Family accounts from MAPS' Rites of Passage project
MDMA-Assisted Therapy Method