Article by Nick DeMent | Illustration by Caroline Cooney | Owl Staff

As severe depression took over every aspect of Jaime Weinrich’s life, she lost her job and all of her interests, including her favorite pastime of horseback riding. No amount of traditional therapy could help. She tried electroconvulsive therapy twice and every available medication before turning to a new form of therapy recommended by her doctor.

This therapy was ketamine-assisted therapy, a form of drug-assisted psychotherapy that would save Weinrich’s life. She undergoes this treatment at Actify Neurotherapies in Potomac, MD.

“I was alive but not living,” she says. “It’s the only thing that has given me any relief from my severe depression and suicidal ideations.”

“Brad Burge, Director of Strategic Communications for MAPS, says MDMA was chosen for this study because, ‘MDMA directly reduces activity in the amygdala, a brain region that helps regulate fear and anger and which is often overactive in PTSD patients.'”

According to Yale Medicine, ketamine therapy is effective because it is fast acting; it takes effect within a few hours and is believed to assist in regenerating synaptic connections in the brain that have been damaged by stress and depression.

Ketamine treatment is currently available to the public, but there are other methods of potential treatment being researched. These studies investigate the potential of psychedelics such as LSD, MDMA and ayahuasca in drug-assisted psychotherapy. However, this is not a new concept.

Research into the therapeutic uses of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) began in the 1950’s, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. This was to help researchers “gain insights into the world of mental patients and to assist psychotherapy.”

During this time, English psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond coined the term “psychedelic” in 1953 during his experiments. He believed psychedelics could be used to treat alcoholism. He conducted therapeutic LSD experiments on himself and volunteers suffering from alcoholism over the next decade.

Osmond found that after 2,000 experiments, a dose of LSD assisted 40 to 45 percent of patients in not relapsing into drinking for a year. However, President Nixon’s national “War on Drugs” brought psychotherapy research to a grinding halt, and pushed psychedelics into the fringes of subculture.

Today, with the increasing legalization of medical marijuana and the Nixon scare fading away, research into non-conventional drugs in medicine has resurfaced.

Studies on these therapies are conducted by doctors and professionals in controlled sessions, and research teams from academic titans such as Johns Hopkins and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS, have produced many results over the past few years.

In 2014, MAPS conducted a study on LSD. At its conclusion, the research team reported their study “found positive trends in the reduction of anxiety following two LSD-assisted psychotherapy sessions.”

Currently researchers at MAPS are investigating the potential of MDMA in assisting those who have experienced severe trauma.

Brad Burge, Director of Strategic Communications for MAPS, says MDMA was chosen for this study because, “MDMA directly reduces activity in the amygdala, a brain region that helps regulate fear and anger and which is often overactive in PTSD patients. By reducing this activity, MDMA may help people feel less afraid of their traumatic memories, and therefore to be able to share them more comfortably with their therapists.”

Progress into the study is well under way; Phase 2 of the study is already complete. Out of two trials with 107 participants, “56% no longer qualified for PTSD after treatment with MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, measured two months following treatment. At the 12-month follow-up, 68% no longer had PTSD,” Burge says.

He also believes, with FDA approval, that we could see psychedelics in therapy within the next ten years, and that this will be the biggest contribution to psychiatric drugs in the last 30 years.

“By shifting our awareness to parts of ourselves—our minds, our emotions, and our bodies—and increasing our capacity for compassion and acceptance, psychedelics can be powerful healing tools,” he says.

MAPS aren’t the only ones studying psychedelics in therapy. In 2016, a Johns Hopkins team of doctors and researchers conducted a study that focused on patients who suffered from anxiety caused by a terminal diagnosis.

It focused on the effects of controlled doses of psilocybin, or “magic mushrooms.”

Dr. Matthew Johnson, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins, was one of the researchers on the team. He defines psilocybin as “a molecular compound and active agent in mushrooms. Psilocybin used in studies is synthesized (to be) identical to that in mushrooms.”

The study involved 51 terminally ill cancer patients over the course of two sessions. Six months after the second session, the doctors followed up on the patient’s mental state.

The patients still retained a strong sense of hope and positivity, with 80% “continuing to show clinically significant decreases in depressed mood and anxiety,” according to their 2016 Journal of Psychopharmacology.

Modern science isn’t alone in practicing euphoric applications either; hallucinogens are also used in cultures around the world.

In South America, ayahuasca is a traditional mixture of two different plants in the form of a brew that contains DMT, a chemical compound that is related to serotonin in the brain.

Dr. Dennis McKenna, ethnopharmacologist and founding member of the Heffter Research Institute, specializes in the study and applications of ayahuasca, a traditional South American entheogenic brew.

During a study in the early 90’s at a traditional Brazilian church, McKenna and his colleagues documented the healing properties of the herbal tea, or “plant teacher,” that was given to people who suffered from addiction and depression.

“They had received a sort of ‘life’s review’ of their existential situation, where they were going and where they might end up if they didn’t change their situation. There was a redemptive aspect to it; they had the understanding that they could change if they stayed with the church and kept drinking the tea. They were able to turn around their lives; it cured their addictions and alcoholism and so on. They were saved by ayahuasca, essentially,” he says.

McKenna also believes these ancient methods to heal people are not so different from those used in modern psychotherapy. He says, “If psychedelics are used clinically, the therapists are the shamans. In a lot of traditional situations, the shamans are the therapists. There are a lot of resemblances and overlap between traditional shamanism and what we call psychotherapy. The basic objectives are the same: spiritual, physical, and mental healing.”

In the end, this healing helped Weinrich get her life back:

“It has drastically reduced my suicidal ideations and allowed me to start horseback riding again, a sport I gave up because of my depression, and I even recently reactivated my counseling license with the goal of looking for a job counseling kids again.”

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