uniMIND Symposium 2022 – Program Booklet

PBL Material

The Department of Psychopharmacology at Maastricht University, uniMIND Maastricht, and the MIND Foundation invite you to the uniMIND Symposium 2022 on April 9th at the SBE Aula in Maastricht, NL, and via livestream.

This year’s symposium discussions revolve around Synergies and Crossroads in Psychedelic Research and Therapy. The program contains excellent academic presentations, interactive group discussions, and still more: as a direct result of the discussions phase (organized as a PBL-session), each group will assign a representative to partake in a panel discussion.

Online participation is entirely free. On-site attendance is limited to 150 tickets that cost 10 Euros. All funds are used exclusively in support of the event.


To attend online, please register via the form below

Online Participation (Form)

* * * * *

Join us for the third uniMIND Central Session with James B. Close and Julia Bornemann to discuss their research article Co-design of Guidance for Patient and Public Involvement in Psychedelic Research, Front. Psychiatry, 30 September 2021.


The uniMIND Program

uniMIND is the MIND Foundation’s international journal club network. With more than 25 groups at universities worldwide, uniMIND provides a well-connected platform for intellectual exchange and mutual academic support in the field of psychedelic research. To learn more about uniMIND, to join or start a group, visit our uniMIND page.

We also recommend connecting to our uniMIND community on the MIND Community Platform. Here we schedule events, discuss feedback and ideas, and more.


uniMIND Central Sessions

Monthly web-based journal club meetings, open to everyone in and around the uniMIND community. We invite academic authors to discuss their very own publications with us.

For every session, there will be one selected text that we share here in the event description. Please make sure to read the article in advance, prepare questions and feedback. Having the authors present at our sessions can be a huge benefit in your understanding of the text and its context.

The uniMIND Central Sessions discussion format is a semi-structured conversational exchange. It is facilitated by the session host and open to input and questions from guests at any given time.

Download the Article here


Join here: https://zoom.us/j/95125702690


Exploring structures and processes emerging around psychedelic research

Join us for a day on the integration of research across disciplines and practice, and explore with us innovative tools to solve some of the complex problems of today.

The event is all-free and will take place via Zoom. Invitation links will be sent via mail to all registered guests (RSVP below).



Full schedule and Call for Speakers here.

Link to join Webinar



Already in the early years of the new millennium, Prof. Evgeny Krupitsky and his team used Ketamine in the treatment of opioid addiction in pioneering clinical studies. In one of these projects, seventy detoxified opioid addicts received either a low, sub-psychedelic dose of Ketamine or a high, psychedelic dose of Ketamine, both supported by accompanying psychotherapy in a randomized trial. Prof. Kupitsky will talk about the implications and results for his groundbreaking work that will inspire other clinicians in the years to come.

 blog-treated_cptsd (1)  blog-treated_cptsd (1)

Ketamine in Contextual Trauma Therapy: 

The Paradox of Dissociation in (Complex) PTSD 

  • Blog
  • Science
  • Perspective
  • 15 minutes
מרץ 12, 2021

Founding Director of NSU's Trauma Resolution & Integration Program

Steven N. Gold, PhD, is retired from a full professorship but continues to be active in the areas of Clinical Psychology and Forensic Psychology, with an emphasis on psychological trauma, dissociative disorders, Complex PTSD, and Contextual Trauma Therapy.

View full profile ››

Clinical Psychologist

Michael Quinones, PhD, research and clinical interests focus on the neurobiology and phenomenology of altered states of consciousness and their therapeutic implications in trauma and dissociation.

View full profile ››

Ketamine-induced dissociation in the context of psychotherapy may exert a therapeutic effect for (complex) PTSD by creating experiential distance through dissociation which allows trauma survivors to face and resolve traumatic material without being overwhelmed by it.

Steven Gold, PhD and Michael Quinones, PhD, are both clinical psychologists working with survivors of C-PTSD in private practice. In this blog post, they share their perspective on C-PTSD, dissociation and ketamine speaking from their personal work experience with ketamine-assisted psychotherapy.

What Is Complex PTSD?

Exactly 40 years following the official recognition of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a diagnosable mental health condition1, it is remarkable both how much and how little has changed. It seems that the recognition of trauma and its impact is ubiquitous. Accounts of traumatic incidents, their psychological toll, and a potpourri of treatments for traumatization are legion in the popular media. The research literature on trauma has expanded exponentially in the last few decades, from practically non-existent in the mid-twentieth century to literally thousands of publications per year in recent times. And yet, as practitioners who specialize in treating trauma-related disorders, we are regularly contacted by prospective clients, including those residing in the largest metropolitan areas of the U.S., who are unable to locate a mental health professional who truly seems adept at trauma treatment. Instead, they report dead-end courses of therapy and ill-timed or ill-conceived interventions that have exacerbated rather than ameliorated their trauma-related difficulties.

Although some forms of therapy for traumatization have been extensively researched and identified as highly efficacious, there is growing evidence that outside the laboratory, under real-world conditions, the level of effectiveness of these approaches is considerably lower. Research studies show that in community settings, on average, around 50% of patients drop out of treatment prematurely.2,3 Due to the treatment, some patients even experience a worsening of symptoms and a decrease in various domains of functioning.3,4

Further complicating matters, it is well-documented that trauma is related to a host of syndromes other than (and often comorbidly in addition to) PTSD. Dissociative disorders, addictive and compulsive disorders, severe depression, and borderline personality disorder are among the most prominent but by no means the only diagnoses that can be associated with a history of trauma.5,6 When these disorders arise from trauma, failure to recognize this origin can seriously limit treatment effectiveness.

A less well-known but prevalent syndrome is Complex PTSD (C-PTSD), a constellation of difficulties first introduced by Harvard psychiatrist Judith Herman in the early 1990s.7  Long a source of controversy,8 research decisively supporting the validity of C-PTSD has only very recently emerged.9,10 This, in turn, led to the explicit acknowledgment of the disorder in the eleventh edition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11).10,11 C-PTSD encompasses all the markers of PTSD but also includes a triad of features collectively designated disturbances of self-organization: an enduringly negative self-concept, ongoing problems in interpersonal relationships, and difficulties regulating emotions.12 The inclusion of C-PTSD in the classification scheme marks a particularly important turning point in trauma psychology in that some empirical studies indicate that C-PTSD is appreciably more common than the more limited set of difficulties comprising PTSD alone.12

C-PTSD was originally proposed to result from repeated or prolonged encounters with traumatic events.7 While this seems to be the case, research findings suggest that C-PTSD is in particular associated with extensive traumatic experiences in childhood.6, 12-14 Taking a closer look at this rooting in early-life adversity can change how we view this disorder. Namely, the three components of disturbances of self-organization can be understood not merely as direct consequences of the traumatic event, but also as developmental impairments resulting from being reared in interpersonal environments that do not adequately support psychological development.

The Neurobiology of C-PTSD

To appreciate the potential of psychedelic-assisted approaches to promote the psychological transformations undergirding the resolution of C-PTSD, it is vital to attain familiarity with the developmental neurobiology of the disorder. The neurological structures of the brain develop in networks of connectivity (intrinsic connectivity networks), each of which is associated with specific functions such as attending to tasks, recalling autobiographical information or past experiences, maintaining a self-concept, and attending to the external environment.20 Research has shown that secure attachment experiences, including receiving affection and attention, and caregiver responsiveness, are essential for the development and growth of the human brain and adaptive patterns of functional connectivity among its neurological structures.16,17

Research on the neurobiology and phenomenology of traumatization has shown that both, traumatic experiences and the absence of experiences like secure attachment, which are necessary for adequate development, can negatively affect biological processes in brain development and lead to aberrant patterns of neural function and connectivity.18,19 This includes issues with the proliferation and pruning of neurons and synapses, resulting in aberrant brain activity within and between specific neurological structures.21,22 Studies strongly support that these forms of adversity can impair the development of several essential neurological structures such as the hippocampus, amygdala, cingulate and insular cortices, and the prefrontal, temporal, and parietal cortices.23-25

Adults diagnosed with PTSD, dissociative, and borderline personality symptomology seem to have significantly altered functional connectivity between these neurological structures, which in turn can disrupt intrinsic connectivity networks.26-28 These disruptions can be seen to correspond to the range of symptom profiles such as hyperarousal, dissociation, depressed mood, negative thoughts, negative self-concept, and flashbacks which comprise PTSD, C-PTSD, and the range of comorbid trauma-related disorders.

An Overview of Contextual Trauma Therapy

For about 30 years now, we have been working on an evolving conceptual framework for understanding C-PTSD and a treatment approach based on that conceptual perspective: Contextual Trauma Therapy.15 In several respects, the Contextual Trauma Therapy model is entirely consistent with the recently emerging major research findings regarding C-PTSD. We propose that C-PTSD results not only from deleterious events that have happened to a child (thus, trauma) but also from the lack of beneficial influences (thus, developmental deprivation). The traumatic impact of an abusive treatment is captured by the symptoms of PTSD. In addition, the three components of disturbances of self-organization encapsulate major consequences of developmental deprivation. These developmental deprivations can be attributed to having grown up in an insufficiently stimulating interpersonal context and the failure to meet the child’s basic developmental needs for affection and validation. Hence the term contextual in Contextual Trauma Therapy.

This context of deprivation fosters vulnerability to being targeted for abuse, heightened risk for traumatization in response to instances of interpersonal violence, augment the likelihood for continued victimization (known as revictimization) later in life, and promote the forms of dysfunction that comprise disturbances of self-organization.

Consequently, Contextual Trauma Therapy theory proposes that the resolution of C-PTSD requires, first and foremost, the remediation of developmental deficits to bolster functional resiliency. Increases in resiliency and stability can be seen as a prelude to the potentially debilitating prospect of confronting and resolving traumatization. Due to many possible impairments in development, C-PTSD survivors can be limited in their adaptation and coping abilities and are therefore vulnerable to deterioration rather than resolution when confronted directly with intense traumatic material. To circumvent this, one may first tackle the three components of the disturbances of self-organization in C-PTSD by: 1) developing a consistent, trusting therapeutic relationship that can serve as a “laboratory” for acquiring interpersonal skills; 2) facilitating cognitive processing of irrational beliefs that sustain a negative self-image; and 3) training in behavioral skills to promote sufficient regulation of impulses and emotional expression.

Summing up, Contextual Trauma Therapy is an eclectic treatment, drawing on a large range of approaches that are guided by the central premise that disturbances of self-organization are not primarily attributable to deleterious events of childhood trauma but rather to having grown up in an interpersonal environment that did not adequately model and transmit adaptive capacities of self-organization. This being the case, trauma reprocessing alone cannot be expected to ameliorate these types of difficulties. On the contrary, because it is taxing and potentially destabilizing, a direct, intensive focus on trauma early in treatment can instead radically compound problems of self-organization.

The Potential of Ketamine as an Adjunct to Therapy to Foster Resolution of C-PTSD

The last decades were marked by substantial progress in the research on the application of psychedelics (such as psilocybin, ayahuasca, LSD, MDMA, and Ketamine) for the treatment of a wide range of mental health difficulties and psychological disorders. Among the classical and non-classical psychedelics, Ketamine is of specific interest to us for several reasons. Most importantly, it was found to benefit patients with various psychological disorders including PTSD, dissociation, depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders.29-31

In contrast to classic psychedelics, Ketamine has been referred to as a “dissociative psychedelic” or “dissociative drug”. In fact, the dissociative effects of Ketamine were already highlighted around the time of its discovery and its initial use as an anesthetic.32  More recent studies describe how the administration of Ketamine provides dose-dependent dissociative experiences such as depersonalization, derealization, time distortion, and amnesia.33,34  And, interestingly, acute depersonalization and derealization after Ketamine have been found to predict the anti-depressant effects of the drug.35,36

Recent research on the neurobiological effects of Ketamine sheds light on how Ketamine may induce its therapeutic effects. Ketamine promotes neuroplasticity through both ‘synaptogenesis’ (creation of new synapses between neurons) and ‘neurogenesis’ (growth of new neurons).30 Furthermore, Ketamine directly affects receptors of the neurotransmitter glutamate, which seems to change the functional connectivity between several neurological structures (prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, anterior cingulate cortex, and basal ganglia), and thus alters the functional connectivity of large-scale networks in the brain through both respectively “decoupling” and “coupling” certain network hubs.37,38 In a therapeutic setting, this may help ameliorate the altered connectivity within and between neural structures that otherwise may be impaired due to the impact of trauma and curtailed development.

Accordingly, these neurobiological changes correlate with the individual’s altered experience of consciousness after Ketamine, such as reduced anhedonia (the inability to feel pleasure), time distortion, and depersonalization.37,39 As part of the debilitating symptomology of C-PTSD and other trauma-related disorders, dissociative experiences are typically associated with experiences of both trauma and deprivation. When provoked by Ketamine, in contrast, dissociation appears to exert a therapeutic effect through neurobiological and phenomenological alterations in consciousness. We believe that this is because there are two qualities of Ketamine that are therapeutic for this population: 1) experiential distance produced by Ketamine’s dissociative effects allows trauma survivors to face and resolve traumatic material without being overwhelmed by it, and 2) ketamine’s neuroplasticity-promoting properties provides a foundation for developmental remediation.

While dissociation is usually thought of in terms of manifestations such as depersonalization and amnesia, we find it conceptually useful to keep in mind that the word dissociation essentially means disconnection. Dissociation can manifest as disconnection from one’s own subjective experience (as in depersonalization, where the person’s thoughts, feelings, sensations, and so on seem not to belong to them), from one’s surroundings (as in derealization, in which the person feels their surroundings are distant and unreal), or from other people (the relative absence of the ability to feel an experiential bond with others, a common characteristic of various forms of insecure attachment).

For traumatized individuals, dissociative capacities appear to act as a two-edged sword. They have a protective function in coping with the chronic psychological, emotional, and physical distress associated with constant childhood adversity and traumatization. However, the automaticity of dissociation as a protective mechanism can also create chronic difficulties in life. Gratifying relationships, maintaining employment, and general success in day-to-day living require the ability to tolerate varying levels of stress and maintain experiential presence. Such experiential presence is further required to access positive emotional states associated with mutual connection, fulfilling relationships, joy, spontaneity, and creativity. As it is exactly this experiential presence that is disrupted by dissociation, it is hard for patients with chronic dissociation to thrive and live a happy, fulfilling life.

An integral component of treating C-PTSD is helping affected individuals reduce dissociative reactions to episodic distress by supporting them develop the capacity for experiential connection to the self, others, and the surrounding environment. In children, these capacities are acquired through the felt connection to attentive and responsive parents, which stimulates the development of rich and adaptive neuronal connections in the brain.40 The development of a therapeutic and collaborative relationship, a cornerstone of both Contextual Trauma Therapy and trauma therapy in general, is essential to fostering these neuronal and corresponding experiential connections. Our clinical experience strongly suggests that ketamine-assisted therapy can greatly accelerate this process.

Therapeutic Implications

We have been fortunate to make contact with ketamine centers that have enthusiastically welcomed our participation in providing ketamine-assisted therapy to some of our existing clients with C-PTSD. In conjunction with our exploration of the relevant biopsychological research literature, it is our impression at this point that the therapeutic potential of Ketamine for people with C-PTSD may represent a paradox, an instance of fighting fire with fire. Although episodes of dissociation are a major source of difficulty for those with C-PTSD, the dissociative qualities of Ketamine appear to be integral, both on a phenomenological and a biopsychological level, to remediating developmental gaps and warps.

Phenomenologically, the calming influence of ketamine-induced dissociation may provide enough experiential distance to neutralize habitual difficulties such as distrust, feelings of unsafety, and compromised capacities to tolerate distress and regulate emotions. Ketamine’s calming influence may even make it appreciably easier to confront traumatic material and become desensitized to it.

In biopsychological terms, the decoupling of disturbed neurological connections and promotion of new, more productive ones may lead to enduring treatment gains in radically less time than trauma-responsive psychotherapy alone. Our limited experience thus far with ketamine-assisted therapy for C-PTSD is consistent with these suppositions. We have seen remarkable leaps in psychological development and trauma resolution after relatively few ketamine-assisted sessions. Now it remains for additional clinical observation and empirical findings to determine whether our initial clinical impressions are borne out.

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  1. American Psychiatric Association. American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 3rd 3rd ed. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association; 1980.
  2. Schottenbauer, M. A., Glass, C. R., Arnkoff, D. B., Tendick, V., & Gray, S. H. Nonresponse and dropout rates in outcome studies on PTSD: Review and methodological considerations. Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes. 2008;71 2 :134–68.
  3. Najavits L. M. The problem of dropout from “gold standard” PTSD therapies. F1000 Prime Reports. 2015;7 43 .
  4. Alpert E, Hayes AM, Barnes JB, Sloan DM. Predictors of Dropout in Cognitive Processing Therapy for PTSD: An Examination of Trauma Narrative Content. Behavior Therapy. 2020;51 5 :774–88.
  5. Briere J, Kaltman S, Green BL. Accumulated childhood trauma and symptom complexity. J Trauma Stress. 2008 Apr;21 2 :223–6.
  6. Cloitre M, Stolbach BC, Herman JL, van der Kolk B, Pynoos R, Wang J, et al. A developmental approach to complex PTSD: childhood and adult cumulative trauma as predictors of symptom complexity. J Trauma Stress. 2009 Oct;22 5 :399–408.
  7. Herman JL. Complex PTSD: A syndrome in survivors of prolonged and repeated trauma. Journal of traumatic stress. 1992;5 3 :377–91.
  8. Resick PA, Bovin MJ, Calloway AL, Dick AM, King MW, Mitchell KS, et al. A critical evaluation of the complex PTSD literature: Implications for DSM-5. Journal of Traumatic Stress. 2012;25 3 :241–51.
  9. Cloitre M, Garvert DW, Weiss B, Carlson EB, Bryant RA. Distinguishing PTSD, Complex PTSD, and Borderline Personality Disorder: A latent class analysis. Eur J Psychotraumatol. 2014;5.
  10. Ford JD, Courtois CA. Complex PTSD, affect dysregulation, and borderline personality disorder. Borderline Personality Disorder and Emotion Dysregulation. 2014;1 1 :9.
  11. Brewin CR, Cloitre M, Hyland P, Shevlin M, Maercker A, Bryant RA, et al. A review of current evidence regarding the ICD-11 proposals for diagnosing PTSD and complex PTSD. Clin Psychol Rev. 2017 Dec;58:1–15.
  12. Karatzias T, Shevlin M, Fyvie C, Hyland P, Efthymiadou E, Wilson D, et al. Evidence of distinct profiles of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex posttraumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) based on the new ICD-11 trauma questionnaire (ICD-TQ). Journal of Affective Disorders. 2017;207:181–7.
  13. Cook A, Spinazzola J, Ford J, Lanktree C, Blaustein M, Cloitre M, et al. Complex Trauma in Children and Adolescents. Psychiatr Ann. 2017 Aug 15;35 5 :390–8.
  14. Wamser‐Nanney R, Vandenberg BR. Empirical Support for the Definition of a Complex Trauma Event in Children and Adolescents. Journal of Traumatic Stress. 2013;26 6 :671–
  15. Menon V. Large-scale brain networks and psychopathology: a unifying triple network model. Trends Cogn Sci. 2011 Oct;15 10 :483–506.
  16. Schore AN. Effects of a secure attachment relationship on right brain development, affect regulation, and infant mental health. Infant Mental Health Journal. 2001;22(1–2):7–66.
  17. Meyer D, Wood S, Stanley B. Nurture Is Nature Integrating Brain Development, Systems Theory, and Attachment Theory. The Family Journal. 2013 Apr 1;21:162–9.
  18. Herzog JI, Schmahl C. Adverse childhood experiences and the consequences on neurobiological, psychosocial, and somatic conditions across the lifespan. Frontiers in psychiatry. 2018;9:420.
  19. Teicher MH, Samson JA. Annual Research Review: Enduring neurobiological effects of childhood abuse and neglect. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2016 Mar;57 3 :241–66.
  20. Gold SN. Contextual trauma therapy: Overcoming traumatization and reaching full potential. American Psychological Association; 2020.
  21. Busso DS, McLaughlin KA, Brueck S, Peverill M, Gold AL, Sheridan MA. Child Abuse, Neural Structure, and Adolescent Psychopathology: A Longitudinal Study. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2017 Apr;56 4 :321-328.e1.
  22. McLaughlin KA, Sheridan MA, Lambert HK. Childhood adversity and neural development: deprivation and threat as distinct dimensions of early experience. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2014 Nov;47:578–91.
  23. Lanius RA, Bluhm RL, Frewen PA. How understanding the neurobiology of complex post-traumatic stress disorder can inform clinical practice: a social cognitive and affective neuroscience approach. Acta Psychiatr Scand. 2011 Nov;124 5 :331–48.
  24. Lutz P-E, Tanti A, Gasecka A, Barnett-Burns S, Kim JJ, Zhou Y, et al. Association of a History of Child Abuse With Impaired Myelination in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex: Convergent Epigenetic, Transcriptional, and Morphological Evidence. Am J Psychiatry. 2017 Dec 1;174 12 :1185–94.
  25. Thomaes K, Dorrepaal E, Draijer NPJ, de Ruiter MB, Elzinga BM, van Balkom AJ, et al. Increased activation of the left hippocampus region in Complex PTSD during encoding and recognition of emotional words: a pilot study. Psychiatry Res. 2009 Jan 30;171 1 :44–53.
  26. Akiki TJ, Averill CL, Abdallah CG. A Network-Based Neurobiological Model of PTSD: Evidence From Structural and Functional Neuroimaging Studies. Curr Psychiatry Rep. 2017 Sep 19
  27. Krause-Utz A, Elzinga B. Current Understanding of the Neural Mechanisms of Dissociation in Borderline Personality Disorder. Curr Behav Neurosci Rep. 2018;5 1 :113–23.
  28. Schlumpf YR, Reinders AATS, Nijenhuis ERS, Luechinger R, van Osch MJP, Jäncke L. Dissociative part-dependent resting-state activity in dissociative identity disorder: a controlled FMRI perfusion study. PLoS One. 2014;9 6 :e98795.
  29. Dore J, Turnipseed B, Dwyer S, Turnipseed A, Andries J, Ascani G, et al. Ketamine assisted psychotherapy (KAP): Patient demographics, clinical data and outcomes in three large practices administering Ketamine with psychotherapy. Journal of psychoactive drugs. 2019;51 2 :189–98.
  30. Ezquerra-Romano II, Lawn W, Krupitsky E, Morgan CJA. Ketamine for the treatment of addiction: Evidence and potential mechanisms. Neuropharmacology. 2018;142:72–82.

31. Feder A, Parides MK, Murrough JW, Perez AM, Morgan JE, Saxena S, et al. Efficacy of intravenous ketamine for treatment of chronic posttraumatic stress disorder: a randomized clinical trial. JAMA psychiatry. 2014;71 6 :681–8.

32. Chang LC, Rajagopalan S, Mathew SJ. The History of Ketamine Use and Its Clinical Indications. In: Mathew SJ, Zarate, CA, editors. Ketamine for Treatment-Resistant Depression [Internet]. Cham: Springer International Publishing; 2016 [cited 2021 Jan 17]. p. 1–12. Available from: http://link.springer.com/10.1007/978-3-319-42925-0_1

33. Castle C, Gray A, Neehoff S, Glue P. Effect of ketamine dose on self-rated dissociation in patients with treatment refractory anxiety disorders. J Psychopharmacol. 2017 Oct;31 10 :1306–11.

34. Radford KD, Park TY, Lee BH, Moran S, Osborne LA, Choi KH. Dose-response characteristics of intravenous Ketamine on dissociative stereotypy, locomotion, sensorimotor gating, and nociception in male Sprague-Dawley rats. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior. 2017 Feb 1;153:130–40.

35. Luckenbaugh DA, Niciu MJ, Ionescu DF, Nolan NM, Richards EM, Brutsche NE, et al. Do the dissociative side effects of Ketamine mediate its antidepressant effects? J Affect Disord. 2014 Apr;159:56–61.

36. Niciu MJ, Shovestul BJ, Jaso BA, Farmer C, Luckenbaugh DA, Brutsche NE, et al. Features of dissociation differentially predict antidepressant response to Ketamine in treatment-resistant depression. J Affect Disord. 2018 May;232:310–5.

37. Li L, Vlisides PE. Ketamine: 50 Years of Modulating the Mind. Front Hum Neurosci. 2016;10:612.

38. Scheidegger M, Boeker H, Seifritz E, Boesiger P, Bajbouj M, Walter M, et al. The effect of a pharmacological ketamine challenge on working memory and brain metabolism. In Elsevier; 2011 [cited 2021 Jan 17]. p. 164. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S000632231100309X

39. Krystal JH, Abdallah CG, Sanacora G, Charney DS, Duman RS. Ketamine: A Paradigm Shift for Depression Research and Treatment. Neuron. 2019 Mar 6;101 5 :774–8.

40. Siegel, D.J. The Developing Mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are, 2nd Ed. 2012. New York, Guilford.

 blog-treated_thirdeye  blog-treated_thirdeye

לא בעין השלישית שלך

?מה עושה DMT במוח

תורגם ע”י Neora Shem-Shaul

  • Blog
  • Science
  • Essay
  • 10 minutes
פברואר 4, 2021

האם יש DMT במוח? מה הוא עושה שם? שאלות אלה מעסיקות חוקרי פסיכדליה זה עשרות שנים, והתשובות עליהן עדיין אינן ברורות. מחקר חדש מנסה ללכת מעבר להוכחת הרעיון הרומנטי על שחרור DMT מבלוטת האצטרובל בעת חוויות סף-מוות. מהתבוננות בתאי עצב יחידים, החוקרים מסיקים ש-DMT עשוי לתפקד כמוליך עצבי (נוֹיְרוֹטְרַנְסְמִיטֶר) לא-קנוני בהגנה על המוח מעקה פיזית ופסיכולוגית. מה שעולה מהמחקר מעלה שאלה חדשה: האם תפקידו של ה-DMT להגן על המוח?

מהאמזונס למערב ובחזרה למצרים העתיקה

נוירוטרנסמיטרים הם מולקולות קטנות המופרשות במערכת העצבים כדי להעביר מידע בין נוירונים. רבים מהם – סרוטונין, דופמין ואדרנלין, למשל – משתייכים לקבוצת מולקולות הקרויה מונואמינים. גם DMT (N,N-dimethyltryptamine), החומר הפסיכדלי החזק ביותר הקיים בטבע, משתייך לקבוצה זו. DMT נמצא בכמויות זעירות במערכות העצבים של בעלי חיים (כולל יונקים), אך לא הוכח באופן ישיר שהוא משמש כנוירוטרנסמיטר אנדוגני.1 הוא נפוץ יותר בצמחים, ותפקידו שם מובן יותר: הוא משתתף בהגנה על מינים מסוימים מבעלי חיים אוכלי צמחים.2

בני האדם מפיקים DMT מצמחים זה מאות שנים. החומר אינו פעיל בבליעה כי במערכת העיכול שלנו נמצא האנזים מונואמין אוקסידאז (MAO), המפרק DMT. השאמאנים של האמזונס ידעו איך לעקוף זאת על ידי שילוב של צמחים המכילים DMT עם צמחים המכילים מעכבי מונואמין אוקסידאז (MAOI), שהם חומרים המדכאים את פעילות האנזים המפרק. החליטה המופקת מתערובת הצמחים הזו ידועה בשם אייוואסקה, שפירושו רוח (AYA) גפן (Waska).3

האייוואסקה שלובה ללא-הפרד במיתוגנזה וברוחניות של שבטי הילידים באמריקה הדרומית. כך גם, כאשר ה-DMT נכנס למודעות המערב, הוא מצא בקלות את מקומו בספרות ובפילוסופיה. התכונות הביולוגיות שלו סקרנו גם את המדענים, מאז סונתז בראשונה בשנת 1931. בגלל הדמיון של DMT לסרוטונין, היה מפתה לשער שהוא קיים בגוף האדם באופן טבעי, כמוליך עצבי. איפה עשוי להימצא מוליך עצבי מיוחד שכזה? השערה פופולרית, שמושגה נלקחו ממדע וממיתולוגיה גם יחד, מיקמה אותו בבלוטת האצטרובל.

תפקידה העיקרי של בלוטת האצטרובל הוא לווסת את דפוסי השינה על ידי ייצור מלטונין. אך ההיסטוריה של הבלוטה הקטנה הזאת, הנמצאת במוח הקדמי, היא הרבה יותר רומנטית. במצרים העתיקה, היא ייצגה את עינו של אל השמים, הורוס, ובהודו היא קושרה ל”עין השלישית”, שער מיתי לתודעה הגבוהה. גלגול מודרני של סיפורים אלה’ מקורו בספרו של הפסיכיאטר, ד”ר ריק סטרסמן, DMT: The Spirit Molecule, שם הוא מעלה סברה, שכמויות גדולות של DMT מופרשות במוחו של אדם גוסס, ומאפשרות מעבר של התודעה מהחיים המסתיימים לחיים הבאים.4

חיים ומוות

התיאוריה של שטרסמן הציתה דיון סוער ומתמשך בדבר נוכחותו ותכליתו של DMT בבלוטת האצטרובל. הניסיונות לבודד אותו ישירות ממוחות אדם לא צלחו, עד כה, אך ניסויים בבני אדם ובחולדות הראו כי יש במוחם – כולל בבלוטת האצטרובל – אנזימים הדרושים לסינתזה של DMT.1

קשה לבדוק אם DMT אכן מעורב בחוויות סף-מוות של בני אדם, אך נעשו ניסיונות לבחון זאת בחולדות. הסתבר שיש DMT במוחות של חולדות, ושריכוזו עולה בעקבות דום לב.1,5 האם פירוש הדבר שחולדות המעבדה עברו חוויה של סף-מוות? האם חוויה זו מתווכת על ידי DMT, או שמא DMT הוא רק פסולת מטבולית של אורגניזם במצב עקה?

תוצאות הניסויים מספקות תובנה מוגבלת. –אפשר ש-DMT הוא רק אחד מרכיביה של סערת הנוירוטרנסמיטרים (בהם סרוטונין, דופמין ונוראדרנלין) המשתחררת בתגובה לעקה הקיצונית של דום לב.1, יתר על כן  אף שריכוז ה-DMT גדל, לא היה אפשר לקבוע אם העלייה הגיעה לרמה של מינון פסיכדלי ממקור חיצוני. ישנם חוקרים הסבורים שזה מה שקורה, אך אחרים טוענים שלא ידוע על מנגנון המאפשר צבירה של כמויות פיזיולוגיות נמוכות של DMT אנדוגני לצורך שחרור מסיבי בבת אחת,6 ולא ידוע איזו תגובה ביולוגית יחולל שחרור כזה. הידע המדעי הנוכחי אינו יכול להצביע על שום מנגנון ביולוגי מובהק שיסביר מעורבות ישירה של DMT בחוויות סף-מוות.

האקדח המעשן?

נדיר למצוא בביולוגיה פתרונות כוללניים. גם נוירוטרנסמיטרים וגם תרכובות פסיכדליות -פועלים על אזורי מוח מרובים, מתחברים לקולטנים שונים בספציפיות משתנה, ומפעילים קשת רחבה של אותות ביוכימיים וגנטיים. DMT אינו שונה, ואם בעבר סברו שהשפעתו פועלת בעיקר באמצעות קולטני הסרוטונין 2A, נמצאו לו מאז קולטני מטרה נוספים. אחד מהם הוא הקולטן סיגמא-1 (Sig1R), שגם אם איננו התשובה לחידת ה-DMT, הוא מספק כמה חלקי פאזל מסקרנים.

Sig1R הוא יוצא דופן. מקורו הוא תעלומה: במונחים אבולוציוניים, הוא קרוב יותר לאנזים פטרייתי הנקרא sterol isomerase מאשר לקולטן כלשהו לנוירוטרנסמיטר ביונקים.7 המדענים לא יודעים איך לפרש את הממצא הזה, בייחוד בהתחשב בעובדה שאנזים פטרייתי מסוים זה בודד בראשונה מפטרייה המייצרת אלקלואידים דומים ל- LSD.

קולטנים רבים מתמחים בהעברת אותות נוירוטרנסמיטרים או על ממברנת התא, או בתוך התא, או בגרעין. רק Sig1R יכול לעשות את כל השלושה. על הממברנה, הוא יוצר קומפלקסים עם קולטנים אחרים לנוירוטרנסמיטרים ולשנות את תפקודם. בתוך התא, הוא קושר חלבונים נוגדי-עקה ומסייע להם לבצע את תפקידם.8 בגרעין, הוא מגייס חלבונים אחרים הנקשרים ל- DNA ומפעילים או מנטרלים גנים שונים באמצעות מנגנונים אפיגנטיים.9

קולטן רב תכליתי זה נקרא “יתום”, כלומר כזה שהמדענים טרם זיהו את הנוירוטרנסמיטר העיקרי המפעיל אותו. תחילה הועלתה הסברה כי Sig1R הוא אולי תת-סוג של קולטני אופיואידים, אך אז התגלה שגם תרכובות אחרות נקשרות אליו, ובהן קוקאין והורמון המין פרוגסטרון.10 באחרונה, הצטברו ראיות התומכות באפשרות ש-DMT מפעיל את הקולטן הזה.

הרמז הראשון לכך הגיע ממחקר בתרביות תאים, שם הראו ש-DMT יכול להיקשר ל- Sig1R. מחקר בעכברים הוסיף הראה, שהשפעת DMT על התנהגות העכברים לא השתנתה כאשר נחסמו אצלם קולטני סרוטונין ודופמין, אך לאחר שהופעל קולטן Sig1R שלהם הם החדלו להגיב ל-DMT. החוקרים הסיקו מכך ש- Sig1R הוא אחד מקולטני המטרה העיקריים של DMT.11 רמז נוסף הוא, שבסינפסות המחברות בין נוירונים שונים, Sig1R ממוקם בקרבת אנזים המעורב בסינתזת DMT.12 זה הביא כמה חוקרים לתהות האם Sig1R, ולא 5HT-2A, הוא המתווך העיקרי של ההשפעות הפסיכדליות של DMT.

הכוחות של קולטן SIGMA 1

מה קורה בתא כאשר DMT מפעיל את Sig1R? מחקרים בתרביות תאים נותנים תשובות חלקיות. באחרונה נמצא, שיש ל-DMT תפקיד בתגובה החיסונית ובתגובה נגד-עקה של תאי אדם. בתאי מערכת החיסון התגלה כי DMT מפעיל ייצור של מולקולות אנטי-דלקתיות.13

במחקר דומה, תרבית של נוירוני אדם נחשפה לתנאים של מיעוט חמצן. נוירונים מתים במהירות כאשר אין להם מספיק חמצן, אך כאשר התאים טופלו ב-DMT ולאחר מכן הופעל בהם Sig1R, רבים יותר מהם שרדו.14 ממצא זה מחבר אותנו בחזרה לריק שטרסמן: אם DMT עוזר לתאים במצבי עקה, האם הוא יכול לעזור גם לאורגניזמים שלמים במצבי עקה – כשהם קרובים למוות וחסרי חמצן? מפתה לחשוב כך, אך חשוב לזכור שנוירונים במוח מתפקדים באופן מורכב ותלוי הקשר. התבוננות בתאי עצב בודדים בתרבית מראה למדענים מה קורה בתוכם, אך מגלה רק מעט על האופן שבו הם מתקשרים זה עם זה במוח תלת ממדי חי.

נכון לעכשיו, הפער הזה עדיין לא גושר. לא נבדקה פעילות Sig1R במוח שלם במצב של היפוקסיה (חוסר חמצן) או עקה פיזיולוגית אחרת. במוח גוסס, DMT עשוי לעזור לנוירונים לשרוד – אך הישרדות לבדה אינה מספרת לנו מה אותם נוירונים עושים, או כיצד פעילותם עשויה ליצור את החזיונות האופייניים לחוויות סף-מוות. בהעדר ראיות ישירות, אנחנו יכולים לקחת כמה רמזים ממחקרי דימות מוחי ולנסות לקשר ביניהם ובין מנגנוני Sig1R ידועים.

חוקרים שהתבוננו על מוחות של אנשים בעת שימוש ב- DMT וב- ayahuasca, הבחינו בשינוי הפעילות במרכזי הראייה והשמיעה במוח, וכן באזורים הקשורים לזיכרון. אלה כוללים מרכזים לתפיסה ועיבוד של רגשות שליליים וזיכרונות עצובים, מרכזי אחזור זיכרון ואת האמיגדלה (אזור במוח המקושר לעיבוד חברתי ורגשי, כולל פחד, חרדה ותוקפנות).15,16

ד”ר אנטוניו אינסרה (Dr. Antonio Inserra), חוקר מאוניברסיטת פלינדרס באדלייד שבאוסטרליה, ניסה לשלב את הגישה המולקולרית גישת המוח השלם, וגיבש השערה מעניינת בדבר התפקידים ש- Sig1R עשוי למלא בפעילויות המוח הללו.7 האנליזה שלו מתמקדת בתפקיד של DMT בעיבוד טראומה, כפי שעולה מדיווחים אנקדוטליים של פגועי PTSD על שיפור במצבם לאחר מפגשי אייוואסקה. הוא משער ש- Sig1R עשוי ליצור קומפלקסים עם קולטנים אחרים ולהגביר את העברת האותות ואת הפלסטיות הסינפטית במרכזי הזיכרון, וכך אולי לסייע באחזור ובעיבוד מחדש של זיכרונות טראומטיים. עוד הוא מציין, כי Sig1R בגרעין משמש כמווסת אפיגנטי,9 כלומר, הוא מגייס אנזימים שמוסיפים תגים שונים ל- DNA ולהיסטונים (החלבונים שסביבם כרוכים סלילי ה-DNA בתא) בכדי להפעיל ולכבות גנים. זה זמן רב ידוע, שמנגנונים אפיגנטיים ממלאים תפקיד חשוב בכל ההיבטים של היווצרות ועיצוב מחדש של זיכרונות. לאור זאת, Inserra מציע את האפשרות, שחלק מהמנגנונים שבאמצעותם אייוואסקה מטפלת בטראומה פועלים דרך אפיגנטיקה של Sig1R במרכזי הזיכרון שבמוח.

בחזרה לאמזונס: האם מחקר חדש יגשר על הפער?

מחקר חדש, של ד”ר סיימון רופל מקינגס קולג’ בלונדון, קושר גם הוא בין DMT, Sig1R ובקרה אפיגנטית. צוותו, בפיקוחה של פרופ’ סיליה מורגן מאוניברסיטת אקסטר, עקב אחר המשתתפים בטקסי האייוואסקה באמזונס כדי לחקור כיצד השפיעו אלה על זיכרונותיהם הטראומטיים. המשתתפים דיווחו על ירידה משמעותית וארוכת טווח בדיכאון, בחרדה ובמצוקה כללית. צוותו של רופל אסף מהם דגימות רוק וניתח שינויים בתגיות האפיגנטיות על ה- DNA שלהם. החוקרים גילו כי הגן Sig1R עבר שינויים אפיגנטיים בחלק מהמשתתפים (תוצאות שהוצגו בכנס ICPR2020 וטרם פורסמו). מכיוון שאנו יודעים שהקולטן עצמו מעורב באפנון אפיגנטי, זו עשויה להיות רק ההתחלה. באילו גנים נוספים מתחולל שינוי אפיגנטי לאחר מפגשי אייוואסקה? המחקר האפיגנטי של רופל עשוי להציע רמזים נוספים לא רק על האופן שבו DMT עובד עם Sig1R ברמה האפיגנטית, אלא גם על האפיגנטיקה של הזיכרון. לא משנה אילו תוצאות אחרות יניב המחקר הזה, הוא כבר משמש גשר חשוב בין המעבדה לטקס; בין התא למוח ולחוויה.

המצב העכשווי של מחקר ה-DMT דומה לחתיכות פאזל שלא מתחברות. אמנם יש סימנים לכך ש-DMT נמצא באופן טבעי במוח האדם, אך מקומות הימצאו ותפקודיו נותרים חמקמקים. יש ממצאים נוספים על האופן שבו ayahuasca ו-DMT ממקור חיצוני פועלים בתאים ובמוח, אך עדיין אין לנו הצדקה להסיק מהם על תפקודו של DMT תוך-גופי.

ובכל זאת, צצו לאחרונה מגוון תיאוריות ספקולטיביות. בעוד חוקרים מסוימים מתמקדים בתפקידים הפוטנציאליים של DMT כנוגד-דלקת וכמגן-נוירונים, אחרים מסתכלים על מחקרי דימות מוח וטראומה, ומצביעים על השפעותיו האפשריות בעיצוב מחדש של זיכרון. שניהם עשויים להתגלות כנכונים, ושניהם תואמים את התיאוריה של ריק שטרסמן, שלפיה DMT קיים במוח האדם כדי להקל את ההשפעות של עקה פיזיולוגית קשה, כגון בתאי עצב חסרי חמצן בעת חוויות סף-מוות. האם המוח הגוסס יכול לשחרר DMT כדי לשמור על חייו זמן רב ככל האפשר? אם כן, המאפיינים הנפוצים של חוויות סף-מוות – כולל חזיונות ו”הבזקי חיים מול העיניים”- עשויים להיות פשוט תופעות לוואי. במקרים של הישרדות נוירונים ועיבוד זיכרון, המחקר עד כה מצביע על קולטן ה-Sig1R הרב-תפקודי והמסתורי כשחקן מפתח בתהליכים אלה.

אף שדקויות המנגנונים המולקולריים של הקולטן הרב-תפקודי Sig1 טרם פוענחו, הוא מוגדר כעת כמטרה של DMT, וזה פותח פתח לכיווני חקירה חדשים. יהיה מרתק ביותר לחקור כיצד DMT ו- Sig1R משפיעים על בקרה אפיגנטי. מידע על אילו גנים הם מפעילים או מנטרלים יוכל לשים את מצאי המחקר בתרביות תאים בהקשר של אורגניזמים שלמים. מנגנונים אפיגנטיים מונחים ביסודן של האינטראקציות הדינמיות שלנו עם העולם ועם המוח שלנו. הבנת האופן שבו מנגנונים אלה עוזרים לאחסן ולעצב מחדש זיכרונות עשויה לעזור לנו לגבש מודל ביולוגי קוהרנטי של האפקט הטיפולי של החוויה הפסיכדלית.

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  1. Dean, J. G. et al. Biosynthesis and Extracellular Concentrations of N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) in Mammalian Brain. Sci. Rep.9, 9333. 2019.
  2. Marten, G. C. Alkaloids in Reed Canarygrass. in Anti-Quality Components of Forages 15–31. Crop Science Society of America. 2015.
  3. Luna, L. E. Indigenous and mestizo use of ayahuasca: an overview. The ethnopharmacology of ayahuasca 2, 01–21. 2011.
  4. Strassman, R. DMT: The Spirit Molecule: A Doctor’s Revolutionary Research into the Biology of Near-Death and Mystical Experiences. Simon and Schuster. 2000.
  5. Barker, S. A., Borjigin, J., Lomnicka, I. & Strassman, R. LC/MS/MS analysis of the endogenous dimethyltryptamine hallucinogens, their precursors, and major metabolites in rat pineal gland microdialysate: LC/MS/MS of endogenous DMTs in rat pineal gland microdialysate. Biomed. Chromatogr. 27, 1690–1700. 2013.
  6. Barker, S. A. N,N-dimethyltryptamine facts and myths. J. Psychopharmacol. 32, 820–821. 2018.
  7. Inserra, A. Hypothesis: The Psychedelic Ayahuasca Heals Traumatic Memories via a Sigma 1 Receptor-Mediated Epigenetic-Mnemonic Process. Front. Pharmacol. 9, 330. 2018.
  8. Mori, T., Hayashi, T., Hayashi, E. & Su, T.-P. Sigma-1 Receptor Chaperone at the ER-Mitochondrion Interface Mediates the Mitochondrion-ER-Nucleus Signaling for Cellular Survival. PLoS One 8, e76941. 2013.
  9. Tsai, S.-Y. A. et al. Sigma-1 receptor mediates cocaine-induced transcriptional regulation by recruiting chromatin-remodeling factors at the nuclear envelope. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. 2015. doi:10.1073/pnas.1518894112.
  10. Su, T.-P. & Hayashi, T. Understanding the Molecular Mechanism of Sigma-1 Receptors: Towards A Hypothesis that Sigma-1 Receptors are Intracellular Amplifiers for Signal Transduction.. 2003.
  11. Fontanilla, D. et al. The hallucinogen N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) is an endogenous sigma-1 receptor regulator. Science 323, 934–937. 2009.
  12. Mavlyutov, T. A. et al. Development of the sigma-1 receptor in C-terminals of motoneurons and colocalization with the N,N’-dimethyltryptamine forming enzyme, indole-N-methyl transferase. Neuroscience 206, 60–68. 2012.
  13. Szabo, A., Kovacs, A., Frecska, E. & Rajnavolgyi, E. Psychedelic N,N-dimethyltryptamine and 5-methoxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine modulate innate and adaptive inflammatory responses through the sigma-1 receptor of human monocyte-derived dendritic cells. PLoS One 9, e106533. 2014.
  14. Szabo, A. et al. The Endogenous Hallucinogen and Trace Amine N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) Displays Potent Protective Effects against Hypoxia via Sigma-1 Receptor Activation in Human Primary iPSC-Derived Cortical Neurons and Microglia-Like Immune Cells. Front. Neurosci. 10, 423. 2016.
  15. Riba, J. et al. Increased frontal and paralimbic activation following ayahuasca, the pan-Amazonian inebriant. Psychopharmacology 186, 93–98. 2006.
  16. Palhano-Fontes, F. et al. The psychedelic state induced by ayahuasca modulates the activity and connectivity of the default mode network. PLoS One 10, e0118143. 2015.
 MDMA-therapy-social  MDMA-therapy-social

Beyond the Therapeutic Alliance

How MDMA and Classic Psychedelics Modify Social Learning – An interview with Gül Dölen
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ינואר 26, 2021

Associate Professor of Neuroscience

Gul Dolen studies the synaptic and circuit mechanisms that enable social behaviors.

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“Rather than having the MDMA-assisted psychotherapy and then sending them home with a journal and some happy thoughts, what we really ought to be saying is that the therapeutic window is actually for weeks, if not months after the acute psychedelic effects have worn off.”

At the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Department of Neuroscience, neurobiologist and MIND’s scientific advisory board member Gül Dölen, MD-PhD, studies the mechanisms by which psychedelic drugs work to treat diseases of the social brain like PTSD, addiction, and severe forms of autism. Dölen spoke to me about her 2019 Nature paper,1 which showed that MDMA re-opens a “social critical period” in the mouse brain when it is sensitive to learning the reward value of social behaviors – but only if the mouse is in a social setting. Based on this research, Dölen and her colleagues believe two things are required for MDMA, and potentially all psychedelics, to be therapeutic in the context of social brain diseases: 1) the re-opening of the critical period and 2) the right social context for the memory to be reshaped. Not only does this view challenge current psychedelic therapy models; it also suggests a way forward for psychiatric treatments more generally.

Priming the brain for psychedelics

Saga Briggs (SB): Based on your animal studies, how do you think psychedelic drugs might work in humans to treat social brain diseases like PTSD?

Gül Dölen (GD): When we think about what happens when someone has PTSD, what we’re dealing with is that during their childhood or youth [during this maximum sensitivity to the social environment, or “social critical period”], they were in a social environment and something bad happened to them, and in that moment, their response was very adaptive. They were protecting themselves by putting up walls, by guarding themselves from whatever was causing that injury.

But then the critical period closes, and over time, that adaptive response starts to become less and less adaptive until they reach adulthood and they’re unable to form intimate relationships. They’re unable to keep a job. They have a very negative view of themselves in terms of self-esteem, that they’re not deserving of love and being in the world. The memory becomes an extremely well-ingrained worldview, and it’s hard to dislodge it. And so the idea is that what we’re doing with MDMA is going back and allowing them to rewrite that memory in a way that’s adaptive, now that the traumatic event has been removed from their environment.

And so I think that in the end of the Nature paper1, we kind of ended with, “Oh, well, [psychedelic drugs] might be just making the therapeutic alliance stronger,” but based on other more recent data and thinking about it longer, I think that it’s more than just the therapeutic alliance. It’s about making available those memories to modification.

SB: How does this memory modification work exactly?

GD: The way I’m talking about it now is I call it “open state engram modification.” So you put the brain on MDMA in an open state where you’re going to be sensitive to your social environment again, and then – either through therapy or through processing your own memories or looking at photographs or journaling — what you’re doing is bringing back the memory engram that is relevant to the trauma in this state where you are available to manipulate it and make those memories malleable and rewrite them to respond to the realities of your current world.

SB: And do you think that has to happen in a social setting, per se? I think in your Nature paper you mention this phenomenon only happened when mice were with other mice. But of course, many people have transformational experiences taking psychedelics on their own.

GD: I actually think probably one of the most surprising and profound findings of the paper is the setting dependence, because every other explanation that has been made of how these psychedelic drugs work from literally everybody else has always overlooked the fact that these experiences are very much modified by the set and setting, that they’re context dependent. You know, it’s not like people who have PTSD are taking MDMA and going to raves and coming back cured. Yes, you can have profound experiences that are important in a therapeutic way outside of a doctor’s office. But you’re not going to have it if you spent the whole time just partying. In that case you’re not engaging those [traumatic] memories.

Going beyond the acute effects

SB: Is this the same mechanism you believe could work to treat severe forms of autism?

GD: Before we can dive in on the human trials for autism, we kind of want to get a little bit more information about autism. One of the things that happened when I was a graduate student is that, my graduate advisor Mark Bear and I, we put forward this theory that if you turn down the signaling of a specific glutamate receptor [mGluR5], it balances out the exaggerated protein synthesis observed in autism.2 This theory had a lot of enthusiasm and excitement and seemed to be validated by animal research that was replicated by twenty-eight other labs. After those preclinical animal studies got so much press, the big pharmaceutical companies jumped on board and they thought they were going to cure autism with this mGluR modification. And then the clinical trials failed, and it was a big disappointment for the whole field of translational neuroscience. It was devastating because we all thought it was going to work, and then it didn’t. So in trying to think about why it didn’t work, there were a lot of different possible explanations. But I think it’s that every single one of the animal studies was carried out either from genesis [doing the manipulation genetically so they were born with the modified gene] or they were given [the modification] very early in development and just given it chronically for their whole lives. Whereas, in the human trials, the youngest recruited patients were sixteen years old, but most of them were adults — well past the age when their social critical period would be closed.

So, the idea that I would love to pursue is, well, maybe the reason that the clinical trials failed is because the mGluR therapy was right, but the critical period was closed. What we really needed to do is give a mGluR modulator, plus a psychedelic, to reopen the critical period. So that under the conditions of an open social critical period, the biochemical imbalance would be corrected and then you would get therapeutic efficacy.

SB: Would open state engram modification be a lasting treatment for these diseases? How long did the effect last for the mice in your study?

GD: Yeah, actually, I think that’s the second most important thing that we found in this study: Every other study trying to figure out the mechanisms of this has really focused on the acute effects of the drugs. And what we found is that after MDMA, the critical period starts to open about six hours after the acute dose. And then it kind of peaks out at 40 hours and stays up for at least two weeks, and then by a month it comes back down. So just to kind of put that into perspective, two weeks in a mouse is probably more like two months in a human.

I think that also informs how we might want to be doing these clinical trials. Rather than having the MDMA-assisted psychotherapy and then sending them home with a journal and some happy thoughts, what we really ought to be saying is that the therapeutic window here is actually for weeks, if not months after the acute psychedelic effects have worn off. We need to treat that period of time as precious and really make there be a lot of intensive focus and therapeutic activity happening during that window rather than just kind of setting them off and letting them be on their own.

Where therapy meets big pharma

SB: In what other ways could these findings influence treatment models?

GD: This speaks to a debate that’s going on right now in psychedelic therapy. The pharmaceutical companies are really wedded to this idea that if we can understand the mechanisms of these drugs, on a pharmacological level, then eventually we can design a drug that activates whatever mechanism is curing depression or PTSD or whatever it is, and then we can design out all of those nasty psychedelic side effects. The psychedelic journey can be gone, right? Like, that’s their dream.

And then you have on the other side the psychologists, who say, “No, that can’t be right because we know that we can achieve these psychedelic therapeutic effects even without the drug, as long as we can get them to this mystical place. We can do it with meditation, we can do it with a little bit of breath work, etc. And furthermore, the strength of that mystical experience correlates with the strength of the therapeutic effects.”

So these are the two sides of the debate. And I think our finding about the setting dependence of psychedelics in opening the critical period kind of offers a middle ground between these two worldviews. What it says is that the binding of the drug to the receptor opens a critical period—that’s the pharmacological effect that the drug companies have been so furiously searching for. Our hypothesis is that that is the mechanism. Any drug or any manipulation that can reopen the critical period has the potential for that therapeutic effect. But then on top of that, the setting dependence of it means to me that what the psychedelic journey is doing and the setting is doing is priming the brain so that the right memory and the right circuit is being brought into reactivation or made available for modification in this open state.

It’s a middle ground between these two different views of how the [drug] is working. And I think it really says, mechanistically, when we are evaluating a potential hypothesis or a new compound or a new way of doing these clinical trials, we need to address this issue of “are we opening the critical period and are we effectively triggering the relevant engram?” Because if we’re not doing either of those things, it’s not going to work.

Future Directions

It remains to be seen whether critical period reopening will become a deliberate aim of psychedelic therapies, especially as other labs begin to claim therapeutic efficacy with trip-less synthetic versions3 of psychedelic drugs. Regardless, there appears to be significant, untapped therapeutic potential to be explored in the months following standard psychedelic treatment. In the case of PTSD, this window could prove invaluable. In the case of autism, which is not universally considered a disease, the conversation is more complex. While the notion of “curing” autism has been and should be challenged, for example by questioning the ethics of fundamentally changing core aspects of an individual’s personality, Dölen’s work stands as a pivotal contribution to the field for those who might seek treatment.


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If you share our vision and want to support psychedelic research and education, we are grateful for any amount you can give.


1.       Nardou, R., Lewis, E., Rothhaas, R., Xu, R., Yang, A., Boyden, E. and Dölen, G., 2019. Oxytocin-dependent reopening of a social reward learning critical period with MDMA. Nature, 569(7754), pp.116-120.

2.       Dölen, G. and Bear, M., 2009. Fragile x syndrome and autism: from disease model to therapeutic targets. Journal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders, 1(2), pp.133-140.

3.       Cameron LP, Tombari RJ, Lu J, Pell AJ, Hurley ZQ, Ehinger Y, et al. A non-hallucinogenic psychedelic analogue with therapeutic potential. Nature. 2020;589(7842):474–9.

 machine therapist filtered  machine therapist filtered

Would You Talk to a Machine Therapist?

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דצמבר 11, 2020

Professor of Psychiatry

Prof. Dr. med. Gerhard Gründer is head of the Molecular Neuroimaging Department at the Central Institute of Mental Health, Mannheim.

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In my recent blog post, I reported on the optimistic view that “digital phenotyping” with smartphone technology would improve psychiatric diagnosis and possibly even treatment. Building on this, I discussed general advancements towards including big data in psychiatry. Another important aspect of the digitization of psychiatry is the development of machine therapists in mental health care, working with artificial intelligence. Adam Miner and colleagues from Stanford University give a brief overview of the current status in their article “Talking to machines about personal mental health problems”.1

Machine therapists that communicate with patients are already in use in the USA and in China. These “conversational agents” are called “Gabby” or “Ellie”. They perform psychiatric interviews and might even someday be able to perform formal psychotherapy. Miner and colleagues are optimistic about the potential usefulness of conversational agents. “Optimism is growing that conversational agents can now be deployed in mental health to automate some aspects of clinical assessment and treatment.”1 According to them, “Some data suggests that people respond to them as though they are human.”1 This could be helpful, “especially to improve access for underserved populations.”1 And interestingly, one study suggests that people who know that they are talking to a computer are more willing to open up.

Miner et al. further state: “The bridge from human responses and machine responses has already been crossed in ways that are not always made clear to users. Chinese citizens engage in intimate conversations with a text-based conversational agent named Xiaoice.”1 The authors admit, however, that conversational agents have not been evaluated in clinical trials and that they might not only be ineffective, but also cause harm. Additional future problems with the technology might be issues of confidentiality. Does a machine therapist have to be as secretive as a human?

Furthermore, most of the current technology seems to be based on text communication, meaning it is based on semantics. Communication in psychiatry, by contrast, is highly contextual. Empathy cannot be coded in words.

While we once believed that psychiatry is the most human medical specialty, scientists now seem to believe that this is the first specialty that will be replaced by computers. Would you talk to a machine therapist about your emotions, your conflicts, your desires?

Our work at MIND relies on donations from people like you.

If you share our vision and want to support psychedelic research and education, we are grateful for any amount you can give.

  1. Miner AS, Milstein A, Hancock JT. Talking to Machines About Personal Mental Health Problems. JAMA. 2017;318(13):1217-8. doi:10.1001/jama.2017.14151
 psychedelic research articles  psychedelic research articles

The Psychedelic Compendium

A New Resource for Research on Psychedelics

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דצמבר 1, 2020

Research & Knowledge Exchange Associate, Resources Manager

Jagoda contributes to the Drug Science Program and the Resources section.

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The Psychedelic Compendium is a series of curated lists of research articles introducing specific topics in a nutshell. Since psychedelic research is a rapidly growing field and new articles are published almost daily, we understand that it might be overwhelming to skim through a multitude of publications searching for the right one. To make it easier to find relevant research, we are introducing lists of article recommendations carefully selected by our team.  

Comprised of both open and closed access articles, our lists of recommended readings aim to lay the foundations for understanding distinct aspects of psychedelic research. Starting from basic overviews and then diving deeper into specific research perspectives, the lists highlight the most important publications in the field.  

To make the lists a handy tool for not only researchers and professionals but also journalists and the general public, we will provide a brief summary of each article. We believe that bridging the information flow between academia and society will significantly benefit both parties. High quality research combined with clear channels of communication with the public will facilitate responsible policy making and therefore result in sustainable development of the relations between science, governments, and the population. 

This post will be continually updated – stay tuned for the incoming recommendation lists! 


1. Recommended Readings for Psychedelic Novices

These ten articles will give you a solid foundation to start your psychedelic research journey. You will gain an overview of state-of-the-art of psychedelic research, the history of psychedelic exploration, the many applications of psychedelic substances in various fields, and most importantly, their therapeutic potential. 


2. Recommended Readings Introducing Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy

Psychedelic-assisted therapy has the potential to help improve global mental health. In this list, we will introduce the history and current state of the research on psychedelic-assisted therapy, as well as challenges and future perspectives. 


3. Recommended Readings on Psychedelics for the Treatment of Depression

Psychedelics offer a new avenue in the treatment of mood disorders. In this list, we will explore the advantages of psychedelics over mainstream antidepressants and summarize essential studies investigating the potential of psychedelics in the treatment of depression and anxiety. 


4. Recommended Readings – Serotonin Receptors

This list of recommended readings explores the diversity among serotonin receptors, the history of their discovery, their relations with psychedelics, and their mechanisms of mediating subjective experiences and therapeutic effects.


5. Recommended Readings – Psilocybin

In this list, we focus on general press articles about psilocybin research and therapy that were published mainly in larger international newspaper outlets.


6. Recommended Readings – Top 2020

This list of Top 10 Articles of 2020 will discuss a ground-breaking trial with psilocybin for major depressive disorder, long-term outcomes of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD, how psychedelics work in the brain, and how to produce psychedelics at a larger scale.


7. Recommended Readings – Ketamine

This selection of research articles on ketamine for mental health will explore its promise in treating not only depression but also the positive effects on suicidal ideation, addiction, and further symptoms of mental health disorders.


8. Recommended Readings – Ketamine

This list presents press articles discussing the therapeutic use of ketamine in mental health treatments and its potential modes of action.


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If you share our vision and want to support psychedelic research and education, we are grateful for any amount you can give.

 big data psychiatry filtered  big data psychiatry filtered

Big Data in Psychiatry Brave New World?

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נובמבר 27, 2020

Professor of Psychiatry

Prof. Dr. med. Gerhard Gründer is head of the Molecular Neuroimaging Department at the Central Institute of Mental Health, Mannheim.

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Every day in the press, but also in the medical literature, the promises of “Big Data,” “Precision Medicine,” and “Machine Learning” for medicine can be found. These proclamations usually begin with sentences such as: “Mental health (including substance abuse) is the fifth greatest contributor to the global burden of disease, with an economic cost of $ 2.5 trillion in 2010, and expected to double by 2030.”1

And then these articles point to the sheer endless possibilities for digitization in medicine. “Big Data” is praised as the solution to all problems in psychiatry: it would supposedly improve not only early detection of mental disorders, but also therapy. These promises sound heavenly: “The emerging field of ‘predictive analytics in mental health’ has recently generated tremendous interest with the bold promise to revolutionize clinical practice in psychiatry.”2 Does anyone really believe that? And more importantly, do we want that?

In my recent blog post “Does Your Phone Know You Better Than Your Therapist?“, I described what “digital phenotyping” means and what great expectations are associated with it. I have also expressed my skepticism. “Big Data” in psychiatry goes beyond that. It purports to infer our state of mind from the pictures we post on Facebook or Instagram. Initial studies have already been published in which an algorithm diagnosed “depression” or “post-traumatic stress disorder” based on Instagram photos or Twitter posts, sometimes long before a clinical diagnosis was made. Very soon, machines should be able to analyze speech in order to derive diagnoses like depression or incipient dementia. There are also claims that the kind of music we hear could allow conclusions about our emotional state. Some hope in all seriousness that by analyzing the troves of data collected about us – and these are not only our digital data traces, but also biological data like genes, epigenetic patterns, hormones, values, and anything which one can “measure” – mental illnesses can be “discovered” so early that they do not even occur anymore.

If you want an idea of what this vision might mean, watch Steven Spielberg’s great film “Minority Report”, in which crimes are prevented before they are even committed. But the future vision of “Big Data Psychiatry” goes far beyond that, and it raises many questions. Who will make a medical diagnosis in the future? A doctor? Or the machines from Google and Apple? And if the data collectors have found evidence that I’m suffering from depression, who will be informed? A public health system? A higher „authority for mental health“? Will I be contacted by this authority for treatment? And if I do not want that, will I be „monitored“ to prevent my possible suicide? What happens to someone whose data suggests he will be diagnosed with psychosis at 90% certainty in the next six months? And if we believe – as some actually do, seeing humans as deterministic biological machines – that this occurs with 100% certainty, then what? Do we treat them prophylactically? Do we even have a right to warn them?

Who will define what is “normal”? When is a “depression” in need of treatment when a machine makes the “diagnosis”? In a thoughtful article, Manrai, Patel (both Harvard University) and Ioannidis (Stanford University) recently asked the question, “In the Era of Precision Medicine and Big Data, Who Is Normal?”3 The concept of the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC), a dimensional framework for the integrative research of mental (dys)function across different levels of information and organization, also suggests that in the future – though this may be a bit exaggerated – one no longer treats the suffering person, but the disturbed brain function. Will there be cut-off values, as is usual in laboratory settings, outside of which one should advise treatment?

Finally, emotions like depression, fear, or despair have their evolutionary meaning. Especially Western industrialized societies tend to regard these as unwanted and want to turn them off at any cost. I am convinced that this is one reason why the use (or perhaps better – consumption?) of antidepressants has increased dramatically in the last twenty years and continues to increase each year. Have we become healthier? The answer can be found in the first paragraph of this post. Big data psychiatry is the answer to social developments. Yet it causes many people at least as much discomfort as these developments themselves.

Our work at MIND relies on donations from people like you.

If you share our vision and want to support psychedelic research and education, we are grateful for any amount you can give.

  1. Conway M, O’Connor D. Social Media, Big Data, and Mental Health: Current Advances and Ethical Implications. Curr Opin Psychol. 2016;9:77-82. doi:10.1016/j.copsyc.2016.01.004 
  2. Hahn T, Nierenberg AA, Whitfield-Gabrieli S. Predictive analytics in mental health: applications, guidelines, challenges and perspectives. Molecular psychiatry. 2017;22(1); 37–43. https://doi.org/10.1038/mp.2016.201 
  3. Manrai AK, Patel CJ, Ioannidis JPA. In the Era of Precision Medicine and Big Data, Who Is Normal? JAMA. 2018;319(19):1981-2. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.2009 
 digital phenotyping filtered  digital phenotyping filtered

Does Your Phone Know You Better Than Your Therapist?

The Promise and Peril of Digital Phenotyping
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אוקטובר 30, 2020

Professor of Psychiatry

Prof. Dr. med. Gerhard Gründer is head of the Molecular Neuroimaging Department at the Central Institute of Mental Health, Mannheim.

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In 2017, Tom Insel, the former director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) published a brief “viewpoint” article with the title “Digital Phenotyping – Technology for a New Science of Behavior” in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).1 Earlier in 2017, Insel left his former employer Alphabet (formerly Google) for the California-based Mindstrong Health, a company which, according to its website, is dedicated to “Transforming Brain Health: Better outcomes through measurement-based care.”

What exactly is “digital phenotyping”? This again is described on Mindstrong’s website:

“Digital phenotyping is the core of our measurement approach. Digital phenotyping is simply assessment based on smartphone use.  As smartphones have become ubiquitous, their increasing use provides an unprecedented opportunity to measure mood, cognition, and behavior – passively, objectively, and continuously.”

According to Insel, “even though smartphone technology promises to transform many aspects of health care, no area of medicine is likely to be changed more by this technology than psychiatry. Digital phenotyping is the term now used for describing this new approach to measuring behavior from smartphone sensors, keyboard interaction, and various features of voice and speech.”

Sachin Jain and colleagues give a typical example of the application in their influential article “The digital phenotype”, published in 2015: “For a bipolar patient whose mania is manifested in rapid, uninterruptible speech or hypergraphia, their disease could be characterized by the frequency, length and content of participation in social media. Through these varied applications, digital phenotypes can help ensure that early manifestations of disease do not go unnoticed and allow the healthcare system to develop more nimble, targeted and prompt interventions.”2

Insel further states that “over the past 4 decades, behavioral expertise, once the strength of psychiatry, has diminished in importance as psychiatric research focused on pharmacology, genomics, and neuroscience, and much of psychiatric practice has become a series of brief clinical interactions focused on medication management. In research settings, assigning a diagnosis from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders has become a surrogate for behavioral observation. In practice, few clinicians measure emotion, cognition, or behavior with any standard, validated tools.”

Do we really believe all this? Can the complexities of human behavior, and even more so of psychiatric disorders, be depicted by traces we leave on our smartphones? When we do not have a consistent concept of “psychosis”, how can we believe that “semantic coherence from speech samples [is] a predictor of psychosis”? 1 When we have no way to explain the enormous heterogeneity of mood disorders, how can we believe that “variation in several sensor measures [are] a correlate of mood ratings”? 1

Looking back at his time at the NIMH, Insel admitted that in his 13 years as the director of the NIMH he doesn’t think they “moved the needle in reducing suicide, reducing hospitalizations, improving recovery for the tens of millions of people who have mental illness. I hold myself accountable for that.”3 Now, in the form of digital phenotyping, he presents an even more reductionist concept of psychiatric disorders than the one that is expressed in the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) of the NIMH, a dimensional framework supporting the integrative research of mental (dys)function across different levels of information and organization.

Insel concludes: “After 40 years of psychiatry becoming more mindless than brainless, perhaps digital phenotyping will help the pendulum swing back toward a fresh look at behavior, cognition, and mood. It has been said that new directions in science are launched by new tools much more often than new concepts. In this case, a tool that is inexpensive and ubiquitous may change the direction of the field.”1

My personal belief is that “digital phenotyping” might be an interesting tool to better understand certain aspects of human behavior, but it is far from being able to “change the direction of the field”. Such a direction would not only be more mindless, but even more “human-less”.

  1. Insel TR. Digital Phenotyping: Technology for a New Science of Behavior. JAMA. 2017;318(13):1215-6. doi:10.1001/jama.2017.11295
  2. Jain SH, Powers BW, Hawkins JB, Brownstein JS. The digital phenotype. National Biotechnology 2015;33(5):462-463. doi:10.1038/nbt.3223
  3. Rogers A. Star Neuroscientist Tom Insel Leaves the Google-Spawned Verily for … a Startup? WIRED [Internet]. 2017 Nov 5; Available from: https://www.wired.com/2017/05/star-neuroscientist-tom-insel-leaves-google-spawned-verily-startup/
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A History of Ecstasy Science

  • Blog
  • Science
  • Essay
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נובמבר 28, 2018

MIND Blog Editor

Lucca Jaeckel is completing his M.Sc. in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience at Freie Universität Berlin.

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“One of the inescapable facts of life is that with MDMA, as with everything that combines both promise and threat, there are intense protagonists and intense antagonists. And both groups are vocal.”

– Alexander Shulgin10

Going by the street name “ecstasy”, not everyone would necessarily consider 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) a medical or psychedelic drug. The public conception of it seems to be that of a stimulant, taken by party-goers at nightclubs and festivals. According to media reports, these party-goers appear to frequently fall victim to adulterated pills and other risks of recreational use, with severe consequences.

Others who have had experiences with the drug or its users might know it by the name ‘hug-drug’, due to its empathogenic effects. But this conception omits the history of MDMA in the psychotherapeutic context, the complexities of its risks and dangers, and most recent scientific findings indicating the usefulness of MDMA as an adjunct to psychotherapy. The complexities of MDMA research will be addressed in this blog post, by sketching out a history of MDMA and its scientific investigations.

Discovery and initial investigation

The history of ecstasy begins in 1912, when chemists at Merck Pharmaceuticals first produced and patented it as an intermediate in a chemical reaction used to manufacture blood clotting agents. After this first description of its chemical formula in 1912, some pharmacological tests were performed at Merck in 1927, though the details of these experiments are unfortunately difficult to track down1. MDMA’s psychological effects in humans were not scientifically investigated until the late 1970s1. This was only done after its apparent use as a street drug, as indicated by police seizures of the substance in the early 1970s2.

In 1978, Alexander Shulgin and David Nichols published a book chapter entitled “Characterization of Three New Psychotomimetics”3, describing the psychological effects of substances chemically related to known psychoactive substances. In this publication, they described MDMA as a drug that “appears to evoke an easily controlled altered state of consciousness with emotional and sensual overtones”and compared its effects to cannabis, low doses of MDA, and psilocybin without sensory hallucinations3. These distinct effects of the drug as compared to classic psychedelics later led Nichols to identify it as part of a subgroup of psychedelics specifically prompted by MDMA: the entactogens4.

Popularization and Criminalization

It was Shulgin, too, who introduced MDMA to psychotherapists around the mid-1970s, and who subsequently used it as an adjunct to psychotherapy without formal FDA approval. From the late 70s until the mid-80s, the use of MDMA among therapists slowly but steadily increased, yet no controlled scientific research on its effects in therapy was conducted during this time5. Notably, this was around 10 years after LSD was used in similar underground psychotherapy and subsequently prohibited. As with LSD, over time MDMA increasingly attracted attention for its recreational effects. Some commercial vendors marketed the drug under the street name “ecstasy” for recreational users. Therapists, on the other hand, rather referred to it as “Adam”6,7

With rising popularity amongst recreational users, MDMA did not go unnoticed by politicians and the authorities. First and foremost, in response to Texas senator Lloyd Bentsen’s observation of its widespread use in Texas nightclubs, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) declared their plan to regulate MDMA as a Schedule 1 substance in 19845. They asserted that the substance lacked any recognized medical use. This planned scheduling was immediately contested by a group of mental health practitioners and researchers who requested the hearing of experts in the process of determining the future legal status of the substance. However, in July 1985, the DEA temporarily banned MDMA for one year due to prior findings on the neurotoxicity of its chemical analogue MDA, as well as its widespread availability. After the hearings, the responsible judge recommended that MDMA be placed in Schedule 3 in May 1986, stating that he believed MDMA had an accepted medical use; this would have allowed for its research and its use in therapy5.

However, “the DEA’s administrator, John C. Lawn, was not convinced […]”by the judge’s ruling and the DEA overruled his decision, arguing that MDMA was not a drug regulated by the FDA and therefore had no accepted medical use. Harvard Psychiatrist Lester Grinspoon and Earth Metabolic Design Laboratories (EMDL, a predecessor of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Science – MAPS) subsequently filed an appeal based on the FDA-medical-use argument and misconduct of the DEA, which had performed the emergency scheduling of MDMA before getting the formal authorization to do so, and which had overruled the judge’s decision5,8. The appeal was granted, and thus MDMA remained unscheduled.

Simultaneously, multiple articles published in scientific journals were advocating for MDMA’s therapeutic potential. George Greer9, who facilitated many MDMA-assisted therapy sessions, published an overview of the subjective effects reported by patients who took the substance during therapy. Alexander Shulgin10 described a comprehensive summary of MDMA’s chemical background and what was known about its pharmacology. Lester Grinspoon11 outlined the theoretical background underlying the anecdotal evidence for psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, with a special emphasis on the potential of MDMA. San Francisco based psychiatrist Philip Wolfsonpresented clinical case studies of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy and tried to specify in which situations it may be helpful, and when it might have severe limitations and perils.Moreover, funded by EMDL, Joseph Downing12 published a study on the physiological and psychological effects of MDMA in human volunteers, concluding that “one can only say that MDMA […] has remarkably consistent and predictable psychological effects that are transient and free of clinically apparent major toxicity”12. And, also funded by EMDL, Charles Frith and colleagues administered MDMA to dogs and rats 13. They stated that “neuropathological changes were not evident in either species”, thereby challenging the concerns about neurotoxicity resembling that of MDA. Despite these attempts to justify the therapeutic use of MDMA, the DEA finally placed the drug in Schedule 1 in March 19885.

After the Schedule 1 Listing

Soon after the scheduling, George Ricaurte et al.14 published a first investigation into the neurological risks of MDMA based on findings in nonhuman primates. This group of Johns Hopkins researchers was the first to show that serotonin depletion, as well as structural changes in the serotonin system, are among the consequences of MDMA consumption. Simultaneously, the recreational use of MDMA in the form of ecstasy pills with electronic dance music started to spread around the globe. Since MDMA was illegal pretty much everywhere, the surge in what was now deemed ‘illegal abuse’ enabled policymakers to provide generous funding to investigate the risks and dangers of the illicit use of the substance.

This risk-centered paradigm was set to dominate MDMA research for the subsequent decades. The bulk of research on the substance’s risks that accumulated over that time was critically examined by Liverpool psychologist Jonathan Cole15, who argues the last 30 years of ecstasy research and its results have to be understood in the context of what he calls the ‘ecstasy paradigm’: Since MDMA has become an illegal drug, its scientific investigation and the public discourse have become subject to moral norms concerning the consumption of drugs. He posits that it became imperative for scientists to show that MDMA is dangerous, which presumably led to multiple flaws in reasoning and methodologies and thereby to biased scientific findings.

For instance, Cole claims a systematic publication bias in the risk-centered literature. He exemplifies this using a situation in which one of his papers, indicating that ecstasy users may not be psychiatrically impaired in the way that has been suggested by others, was rejected. One of the anonymous peer reviewers, whom Cole implicates as part of the problem, commented that he found the data hard to believe15.

Scientific research on the therapeutic effects of MDMA was effectively halted by the Schedule 1 listing. However, organized efforts to enable research into these aspects of MDMA were already made around the time of the scheduling. The aforementioned EMDL was founded to challenge the DEA’s scheduling of MDMA. In response to the Schedule 1 listing of the drug and the lack of evidence to support it, one of the EMDL’s co-founders, Rick Doblin, went on to start MAPS. The idea behind this was to create a non-profit pharmaceutical company which would “facilitate research into the therapeutic uses of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy”8.

However, the political climate remained unfavorable until fairly recently. Throughout the years, further writings resembling and building upon the 1986 journal articles have been published to advocate for substance-assisted psychotherapy, and specifically MDMA-assisted psychotherapye.g. 14–18. And eventually, the first MAPS-funded randomized controlled clinical trial investigating MDMA-assisted psychotherapy was conducted by José Bouso et al.21. Their study, for which they started enrolling patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 2000, was prematurely shut down in 2002 due to political pressure, leaving 23 out of 29 patients untreated and insufficient data for statistical analysis8,21.

Undeterred, MAPS funded Michael Mithoefer’s22–24 trials in the U.S. and Peter Oehen’s25 trial in Switzerland. Despite minor inconsistencies in the results, possibly due to the small sample sizes, the studies indicated that MDMA-assisted psychotherapy is a promising therapeutic approach for PTSD26,27. Additionally, a recent MAPS-funded study indicates that MDMA-assisted psychotherapy may decrease symptoms of social anxiety in autistic adults28.

As opposed to applied clinical and forensic research, throughout the last ten years MDMA has also increasingly been studied from a more basic scientific perspective. This approach does not focus on the positive or negative effects of MDMA, but on neutrally investigating the effects of the substance in humans. While pharmacological data has already been obtained in the context of forensic science, some fields have only emerged after the 2000s revival of research on MDMA-assisted-psychotherapy. For example, the effects of MDMA on human socio-emotional cognition and behavior have been under investigation since 2009e.g. 29–31Furthermore, some researchers are performing mechanistic studies in which certain receptors are blocked pharmacologically to illuminate the neurobiology underpinning MDMA’s psychological effectse.g. 32–34. Both of these approaches not only expand our knowledge of MDMA and its effects, but also provide unique insights into the neurobiology underlying complex cognitive and affective processes. While these advances may bear less imminent implications for practice, they offer great potential for general scientific advancement and translational research at a later point.

Changing Paradigms – Future Directions

For years, research on MDMA has been limited to investigating the risks of its recreational use. This seems to be mainly due to the limited evidence base on the substance’s therapeutic effects at the time of the DEA scheduling. But largely thanks to the persistent work of MAPS, we can now distinguish between several strands of MDMA research. These strands partially correspond to the dual use of the drug in recreational and therapeutic contexts, but recently began to include basic scientific investigations as well. This research seeks to enable not only more precise management of the risks of recreational use and better treatment of mental health conditions, but also to bring general scientific advancement.

Our work at MIND relies on donations from people like you.

If you share our vision and want to support psychedelic research and education, we are grateful for any amount you can give.


1. Freudenmann RW, Öxler F, Bernschneider-Reif S. The origin of MDMA (ecstasy) revisited: the true story reconstructed from the original documents. Addiction. 2006 Sep;101(9):1241–5.

2. Gaston TR, Rasmussen GT. Identification of 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine. Microgram. 1972;5(60).

3. Shulgin AT, Nichols DE. Characterization of Three New Psychotomimetics. In: The Psychopharmacology of Hallucinogens [Internet]. Saint Louis: Elsevier Science; 1978 [cited 2018 Sep 4]. Available from: http://qut.eblib.com.au/patron/FullRecord.aspx?p=1838603

4. Nichols DE. Differences Between the Mechanism of Action of MDMA, MBDB, and the Classic Hallucinogens. Identification of a New Therapeutic Class: Entactogens. J Psychoactive Drugs. 1986 Oct;18(4):305–13.

5. Holland J. The History of MDMA. In: Holland J, editor. Ecstasy:The complete guide:  A comprehensive look at the risks and benefits of MDMA [Internet]. Rochester, VT, US: Park Street Press; 2001. p. 11–20.

6. Wolfson PE. Meetings at the Edge with Adam: A Man for All Seasons? J Psychoactive Drugs. 1986 Oct;18(4):329–33.

7. Adamson S, Metzner R. The nature of the MDMA experience and its role in healing, psychotherapy and spiritual practice. ReVision. 1988;10(4):59–72.

8. Emerson A, Ponte L, Jerome L, Doblin R. History and future of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). J Psychoactive Drugs. 2014;46(1):27–36.

9. Greer G, Tolbert R. Subjective Reports of the Effects of MDMA in a Clinical Setting. J Psychoactive Drugs. 1986 Oct;18(4):319–27.

10. Shulgin AT. The background and chemistry of MDMA. J Psychoactive Drugs. 1986 Oct;18(4):291–304.

11. Grinspoon L, Bakalar J. Can drugs be used to enhance the psychotherapeutic process? Am J Psychother. 1986 Jul;40(3):393–404.

12. Downing J. The Psychological and Physiological Effects of MDMA on Normal Volunteers. J Psychoactive Drugs. 1986 Oct;18(4):335–40.

13. Frith CH, Chang LW, Lattin DL, Walls RC, Hamm J, Doblin R. Toxicity of methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) in the dog and the rat. Fundam Appl Toxicol Off J Soc Toxicol. 1987 Jul;9(1):110–9.

14. Ricaurte GA, Forno LS, Wilson MA, DeLanney LE, Irwin I, Molliver ME, et al. (+/-)3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine selectively damages central serotonergic neurons in nonhuman primates. JAMA. 1988 Jul 1;260(1):51–5.

15. Cole JC. MDMA and the “Ecstasy Paradigm.” J Psychoactive Drugs. 2014 Jan;46(1):44–56.

16. Liester MB, Grob CS, Bravo GL, Walsh RN. Phenomenology and sequelae of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine use. J Nerv Ment Dis. 1992 Jun;180(6):345–52.

17. Grinspoon L, Doblin R. Psychedelics as Catalysts of Insight-Oriented Psychotherapy. Soc Res. 2001;68(3):677–95.

18. Bouso JC, Ryan C. Using MDMA in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. In: Holland J, Holland J (Ed), editors. Ecstasy: The complete guide:  A comprehensive look at the risks and benefits of MDMA. Rochester, VT, US: Park Street Press; 2001. p. 248–60.

19. Metzner R, Adamson S. Using MDMA in healing, psychotherapy, and spiritual practice. In: Holland J, Holland J (Ed), editors. Ecstasy:The complete guide:  A comprehensive look at the risks and benefits of MDMA. Rochester, VT, US: Park Street Press; 2001. p. 182–207.

20. Metzner R. Hallucinogenic Drugs and Plants in Psychotherapy and Shamanism. J Psychoactive Drugs. 1998 Dec;30(4):333–41.

21. Bouso JC, Doblin R, Farré M, Alcázar MÁ, Gómez-Jarabo G. MDMA-assisted psychotherapy using low doses in a small sample of women with chronic posttraumatic stress disorder. J Psychoactive Drugs. 2008 Sep;40(3):225–36.

22. Mithoefer MC, Mithoefer AT, Feduccia AA, Jerome L, Wagner M, Wymer J, et al. 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA)-assisted psychotherapy for post-traumatic stress disorder in military veterans, firefighters, and police officers: a randomised, double-blind, dose-response, phase 2 clinical trial. Lancet Psychiatry [Internet]. 2018 May [cited 2018 May 23]; Available from: http://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S2215036618301354

23. Mithoefer MC, Wagner MT, Mithoefer AT, Jerome L, Doblin R. The safety and efficacy of ±3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine-assisted psychotherapy in subjects with chronic, treatment-resistant posttraumatic stress disorder: The first randomized controlled pilot study. J Psychopharmacol (Oxf). 2011 Apr;25(4):439–52.

24. Mithoefer MC, Wagner MT, Mithoefer AT, Jerome L, Martin SF, Yazar-Klosinski B, et al. Durability of improvement in post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and absence of harmful effects or drug dependency after 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine-assisted psychotherapy: A prospective long-term follow-up study. J Psychopharmacol (Oxf). 2013 Jan;27(1):28–39.

25. Oehen P, Traber R, Widmer V, Schnyder U. A randomized, controlled pilot study of MDMA (± 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine)-assisted psychotherapy for treatment of resistant, chronic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). J Psychopharmacol Oxf Engl. 2013 Jan;27(1):40–52.

26. Chabrol H, Oehen P. MDMA assisted psychotherapy found to have a large effect for chronic post-traumatic stress disorder. J Psychopharmacol (Oxf). 2013 Sep;27(9):865–6.

27. Thal SB, Lommen MJJ. Current perspective on mdma-assisted psychotherapy for posttraumatic stress disorder. J Contemp Psychother [Internet]. 2018 Jun; 48(2):99-108.

28. Danforth AL, Grob CS, Struble C, Feduccia AA, Walker N, Jerome L, et al. Reduction in social anxiety after MDMA-assisted psychotherapy with autistic adults: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled pilot study. Psychopharmacology (Berl) [Internet]. 2018 Sep 8 [cited 2018 Sep 24]; Available from: http://link.springer.com/10.1007/s00213-018-5010-9

29. Bedi G, Hyman D, de Wit H. Is ecstasy an “empathogen”? Effects of ±3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine on prosocial feelings and identification of emotional states in others. Biol Psychiatry. 2010 Dec 15;68(12):1134–40.

30. Bershad AK, Miller MA, Baggott MJ, de Wit H. The effects of MDMA on socio-emotional processing: Does MDMA differ from other stimulants?. J Psychopharmacol Oxf Engl. 2016;30(12):1248–58.

31. Dumont GJH, Sweep FCGJ, van der Steen R, Hermsen R, Donders ART, Touw DJ, et al. Increased oxytocin concentrations and prosocial feelings in humans after ecstasy (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine) administration. Soc Neurosci. 2009 Aug;4(4):359–66.

32. Hysek CM, Fink AE, Simmler LD, Donzelli M, Grouzmann E, Liechti ME. α₁-adrenergic receptors contribute to the acute effects of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine in humans. J Clin Psychopharmacol. 2013 Oct;33(5):658–66.

33. Kuypers KPC, de la Torre R, Farre M, Yubero-Lahoz S, Dziobek I, Van den Bos W, et al. No Evidence that MDMA-Induced Enhancement of Emotional Empathy Is Related to Peripheral Oxytocin Levels or 5-HT1a Receptor Activation. de Wit H, editor. PLoS ONE. 2014 Jun 27;9(6):e100719.

34. van Wel JHP, Kuypers KPC, Theunissen EL, Bosker WM, Bakker K, Ramaekers JG. Effects of Acute MDMA Intoxication on Mood and Impulsivity: Role of the 5-HT2 and 5-HT1 Receptors. Mendelson JE, editor. PLoS ONE. 2012 Jul 10;7(7):e40187.