The world’s first scientific study into the efficacy of treating alcoholism with MDMA-assisted psychotherapy is set to begin later this year at Imperial College London. Once known mostly as a party drug, MDMA’s therapeutic benefits are now taking center stage as multiple studies are showing that it is incredibly potent at leading people out of trauma and anxiety when the experience is guided by a trained psychotherapist. This research will be an exciting step forward in understanding MDMA’s potential uses as a prescription treatment (which could begin legally in the US as soon as 2021), and could also shed light on the correlation between trauma resolution and the addiction recovery process.
The Importance of Therapy
It’s important to point out that studies like the forthcoming one at Imperial College London are not looking at the effects of MDMA by itself, but rather how the substance enhances therapy. The twenty patients chosen for the upcoming study will go through a physical detox process and two sober therapy sessions in preparation for a full-day session when the MDMA will be administered. The therapist or therapists guiding the experience will then use the heightened openness and trust that MDMA provides to delve into the root causes of addiction in a safe and supportive environment, without the fear and defenses that normally stand in the way of dealing with sensitive subjects. MDMA psychotherapy is less about taking a magic pill, and much more about carefully crafting a breakthrough experience. While many recreational MDMA users have reported lasting positive effects from their own MDMA experiences, these clinical trials will be laser-focused on drawing out the most beneficial insights, resolutions, and revelations in order to relieve patients of their compulsive drive to consume alcohol.
The Role of Trauma
There are many biological, psychological and social causes for addictions like alcoholism, but one of the most significant is the experience of trauma, especially during childhood. One of the leading experts in addiction today, Dr. Gabor Mate, wrote about the trauma-addiction link in a recent opinion piece for CBC News: “…Trauma shapes the physiology of the developing brain in ways that induce a susceptibility to addiction. Hence the addiction-prone person finds relief in substances that would not entice others, even after repeated exposure to the same drugs.” While it would be incorrect to conclude that trauma is the only cause of addiction, it increasingly seems like we can confidently describe it as the primary cause- which means any treatment that has proven itself to resolve trauma will be a huge boon to treating the root causes of addiction.
As it turns out, MDMA is proving to be just that. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) has been funding FDA-approved scientific research into MDMA as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for years, and the results are nothing less than astounding. After just a few MDMA-assisted therapy sessions, a whopping 83% of patients in the MAPS Phase 2 clinical trials went from having chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD to no longer meeting any criteria of having the disorder. With trauma’s prevalent role in addiction and the proven success of MDMA in helping people to permanently overcome trauma, this paints a very encouraging picture for the Imperial College London alcoholism trials.
Getting Academia on Board
The fact that these new MDMA therapy trials have been approved is a hopeful sign that shows anti-psychedelic stigma is waning and the addiction treatment paradigm is expanding. However, many conventional doctors, researchers, and academics are still out of touch with just how significantly psychedelic therapy will impact the fields of mental health and addiction treatment. Senior clinical lecturer Ed Day at King’s College London’s National Addiction Centre admitted that psychedelics were “fascinating” and postulated that “…benefits would come in treating problems such as post-traumatic stress or severe depression, rather than drug problems per se.” He further commented about the study “I wouldn’t want this issue to distract from the real problems facing drug and alcohol treatment services in England at the moment.”
While it is true that addressing addiction requires a multifaceted approach, we would suggest that Dr. Day and others who share his skepticism look at the link between trauma and addiction, the incredible success rate of the MAPS Phase 2 clinical trials with MDMA, and the legacy of successfully treating alcoholism, smoking, and opioid addiction with psychedelic therapy. It could well be argued that the “real problems facing drug and alcohol treatment services” in the UK and around the world stem from a myopic focus on treating symptoms and behaviors, rather than holistically treating the root causes of addiction as they affect the whole person. When it comes to giving people truly transformative experiences that create lasting changes to behavior, motivation, and sense of self, psychedelic therapy truly shines.