Sandy Mazza, Contra Costa Times
A small supply of a drug known widely as Ecstasy or Molly, highly controlled since it was outlawed nearly 30 years ago, sits inside a safe bolted to the floor of a locked room that is only accessible through another locked room at County Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.
Until recent years, even psychotherapists who suspected the empathy-inducing drug might ease symptoms of some of the most difficult-to-treat mental illnesses were denied access to Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA.
Dr. Charles Grob, a psychiatrist at Harbor-UCLA and investigator at Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute, or LA BioMed, was the first to win approval from the federal Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration to begin clinical trials of MDMA. Since he began the testing about 10 years ago, he has found that the drug may be helpful to adults grappling with varying degrees of autism.
And just recently, Grob began a new round of research on patients with the neurodevelopmental disorder.
“The question is: ‘Can we re-engage this area in a responsible, objective way to explore methods of a treatment?’ ” Grob said. “But to do so in a responsible way, unlike what happened in the ’60s.”
Grob, who is also director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center near Torrance, isn’t alone. Psychiatrists around the world are now studying whether the drug will help those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. But Grob wants to know if it will ease the social anxiety and isolation suffered by those with autism.
Grob and his research partner, Alicia Danforth, have begun “preparatory psychotherapy” with three autistic patients who have agreed to try the MDMA treatment. The study will ultimately include 12 participants, one-third of whom will receive a placebo.
Each patient will be admitted to the hospital for physical observation and medical tests the night before they are given the relatively small dose of 75 to 125 milligrams of the drug. Grob or Danforth will then sit with them while they are asked questions and given blood and other medical tests to monitor their reactions. A comfortable setting for the treatment is imperative to its success, Grob believes.
“We try to optimize ‘set and setting’ in order to ensure strong, safe parameters,” Grob said. “I suppose that is ultimately derived from the shamanic model.”
Grob believes MDMA and hallucinogenics such as psilocybin — the active drug in psychedelic mushrooms — and ayahuasca, a concoction made from a plant vine that causes hallucinations, could hold clues to reversing the negative symptoms of mental illness and addiction (particularly alcoholism).
Grob conducted two ayahuasca studies with a religious group in Brazil that uses the plant for spiritual enlightenment in 1993 and 2001. From 2004 to 2008, he conducted research to determine if psilocybin could help terminally ill cancer patients better cope with death. In both cases, he found strong evidence that the drugs were helpful in ways that modern medicine is not. He hopes to find similar results with the current MDMA study.
“We’re looking for something to facilitate positive, ongoing change,” Grob said. “You can’t take an autistic person and make them un-autistic, but you can treat the overwhelming social anxiety.”
Since use of the drug often entails a spiritual awakening or psychological epiphany, Grob believes the drug impacts the mind in ways science doesn’t fully understand, other than its clear impact on serotonin delivery in the brain.
European researchers began taking an interest in hallucinogenics in the late 1800s, but the field of study really took off when Dr. Albert Hofmann synthesized a lysergic acid amide, referred to as LSD-25, in the 1940s. Within 20 years of its discovery, LSD and other similar hallucinogenics were vilified and outlawed because their popularity had spread among the youth culture, ultimately becoming something that mainstream society viewed as “a prime suspect in inciting the accelerating state of cultural havoc,” Grob wrote.
Decades of promising psychiatric research of the drugs was sullied by dangerous scientific methods used by some, including the U.S. government, Grob said. Now, he hopes the negative stigma of the drugs can be ameliorated with adherence to strict scientific models, which Grob designed based on the historic use of hallucinogenics in “shamanic society.”
Now that research with these drugs has resumed, the hurdle may be getting financing for such studies. Grob and Danforth will not be able to finish the current MDMA study unless they receive more funds.
“These awe-inspiring botanicals were utilized to facilitate healing, divine the future, protect the community from danger and enhance learning,” Grob said in a 1998 published research paper. “However, with the advent of stratified and hierarchical societies, such plant potentiators came to be viewed as dangerous to the commonwealth.
“The hallucinogenic treatment model shows strengths. The ayahuasca religious group in Brazil had very strong psychological health and good behavioral profiles, and many of them struggled with alcohol and drug addiction before joining the group.”
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