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USA TODAY SPECIAL EDITION

HEALTH & HEALING In 2012, McCourry’s sister saw a news report about a small study taking place in Charleston, S.C., that used MDMA, known to most as the party drug ecstasy or molly, to facilitate psychotherapy for PTSD. McCourry called. At the time, he had just started graduate school at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., and knew that the cocktail of drugs he’d been prescribed by the VA — an antidepressant, sleeping aids and an antipsychotic — along with talk therapy, weren’t working. He even had thoughts about taking his own life. “I was starting to fixate on the idea. It was bad,” McCourry said. He was selected for the study and traveled to Charleston to work with Dr. Michael Mithoefer, a psychiatrist who had conducted MDMA psychotherapy with numerous patients, and Mithoefer’s wife, Ann, a nurse who assisted with the treatment. The therapy included taking 75 milligrams of pharmaceutical-grade MDMA in the morning, resting quietly for a while — an opportunity to “focus inward” McCourry said — and then talking with the Mithoefers until late afternoon. He then spent the night at the research facility, monitored by a specially trained medical professional. “After the first session (with MDMA), I noticed an immediate improvement in my sleep. I hadn’t slept straight through the night for nearly nine years,” McCourry said during a phone interview from his home in Portland, Ore., where he works as a chemist. “Then came this sense of self-forgiveness.” McCourry is not alone in finding relief MULTIDISCIPLINARY ASSOCIATION FOR PSYCHEDELIC STUDIES (MAPS) from a street drug known more for causing The nonprofit group Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies is testing the use of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD. euphoria and joy. In research studies, more than 120 military veterans, first responders According to the National Institute of Drug decline in symptoms, they no longer fit Although small studies have been and sexual assault victims with PTSD have Abuse (NIDA), its use can cause negative the clinical definition for having PTSD. And conducted on MDMA’s effects on PTSD seen a decline in their symptoms following after effects, including irritability, depresfollow-up exams a year later found these since 2011, with the FDA’s approval, a standard three sessions of MDMAsion, anxiety and memory issues. Other patients continued to be symptom-free. MAPS, the sole backer, will move ahead assisted psychotherapy. And in August, the physical side effects can include nausea, “The results are extremely promising,” with a significant phase Food and Drug Adminsweating or chills, seizures, kidney failure Mithoefer said. of research — Phase 3 istration designated it a and panic attacks. According to McCourry, the experience clinical trials, which “breakthrough therapy” With its complex influence on the brain, helped him discover the reasons behind look at the effectiveness — clearing the way for With MDMA’s scientists and researchers want to tread the sensations he had been feeling, without of the medication additional research complex influence carefully in legalizing it for medicinal use. any anxiety: “As I focused on an issue, it in larger groups of and the fast track for “While fatal overdoses on MDMA are rare, would just vanish.” patients. The research, potential approval as a on the brain, they can potentially be life-threatening,” Because MDMA releases a rush of the which will take place in prescription drug. scientists and noted NIDA, a branch of the National feel-good neurotransmitter seratonin, it nearly a dozen locations “This would be Institutes of Health. can neutralize anxiety and emotional denationwide, will include medicalization, not legalresearchers want Doblin emphasized that the drug would fense mechanisms, allowing users to think at least 230 patients and ization, of MDMA,” said to tread carefully only be offered during therapy and is and talk through their trauma without fear, counselors trained by the Rick Doblin, executive not a take-home cure for PTSD. “This is Mithoefer explained. MDMA also causes an Mithoefers and others. director of the Multiin legalizing it for something that would only be offered increase in norepinephrine and dopamine “We are concerned disciplinary Association medicinal use. in specialized clinics under controlled — neurotransmitters known for increasing that the rollout be done for Psychedelic Studies circumstances,” Doblin said. energy and alertness. The drug also carefully,” Doblin said. (MAPS), a nonprofit In 2016, 583,000 veterans were treated appears to decrease activity in parts of the “This has the potential research and educational for PTSD from the VA. Standard treatment brain associated with emotions, which may to help those who have organization and the includes cognitive processing therapy, help dull responses to negative emotions been suffering from PTSD for decades.” research sponsor. “There is such a concern prolonged exposure therapy and eye and memories, according to researchers at According to Michael Mithoefer, one of about veteran suicide … and so many movement desensitization and reprocessthe Imperial College of London. the studies showed that 61 percent of 107 patients with PTSD are treatment resistant, ing, along with drug therapies. Currently, MDMA is not without its risks, however. participants reported such a significant that this is seriously being considered.”

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VETERANS AFFAIRS 2017  

VETERANS AFFAIRS 2017