Lecturer Discusses Role of MDMA in Psychotherapy

Lara Dunkelberg ’20 and Doblin after the talk.


Drew Kaplan ’20, Editor-In-Chief

Rick Doblin P’21 spoke to a full audience to discuss the role of psychedelic substances in the treatment of mental health conditions, and the legal and social ramifications of his research into the field.

Doblin, who described his work as being at the intersection of “the science, the politics, and the medicine” around psychedelics, detailed his current research regarding the use of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in conjunction with therapy in order to allow suffers to engage with their emotions and overcome fear. Doblin described individuals who have taken MDMA as part of their treatment “have learned how to heal themselves, they’ve learned how to process trauma.” This is in part due to the effects of MDMA as it relates to different neural centers in the brain affecting both memory encoding and recall, as well as parts of the brain governing sociality. Doblin explained that MDMA reduces neural activity in the amygdala, which causes a lessening of fear in individuals, while also causing increased activity and prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus. Increased activity in the former leads to increased cognitive processing, and increased interaction between the two centers improves memory encoding, in addition to improved memory processing. Due to its increasing of serotonin activity in these regions, Doblin asserted that “MDMA promotes pro-social behaviors,” allowing individuals to come to terms both with themselves regarding past traumas, and allows for greater receptivity to therapy. Doblin noted that the effects of MDMA on serotonin are replicable in octopi, meaning that the greater interpersonal connection caused by MDMA is both “pre-verbal,” and conserved despite the evolutionary differences between octopi and humans. Doblin also referred to a study performed at University College London (UCL) which found a connection between psychedelic induced ego death, a mental state in which an individual becomes temporarily transcends their sense of self as an individual, and both nature connectedness and liberalism, alongside a decrease in authoritarianism, and his own research on MDMA assisted 

Doblin explained the hypothesis that, within the mind, there is a sort of inner healer akin to how the body heals itself after injury. However, in cases such as trauma, that inner healer is blocked. MDMA allows individuals to re-engage that inner healer, and while the experience of the substance itself is important, it is more that the substance ought to act as a catalyst to the healing process. Doblin explained that MDMA in conjunction with therapy is meant to “just support what’s emerging” from the individual. Doblin noted the importance of relationship building between individuals undergoing therapy and the therapists themselves, leading him to advocate that the therapists have experience with having consumed MDMA. “You wouldn’t go to a mediation teacher that never meditated. This is about a relationship between the patients and the therapists,” Doblin said.

Doblin then turned to the social and legal implications of his research. He explained that although MDMA was initially discovered in 1912, and was tested by the United States army in animals alongside mescaline and methamphetamine, in the 1950s, its psychedelic properties were unknown at the time, which meant it was not initially illegalized by the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, unlike lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and psilocybin, the active compound in psychedelic mushrooms. This allowed Alexander Shulgin to make use of MDMA to assist therapy in the 1970s. However, the growing popularity of the substance as a recreational drug led to it being illegalized in 1985. This meant that further research at the time “became wiped out” despite the “really powerful political connection” fostered by the substance. Doblin noted that he established the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) to foster his research. He noted that MDMA, alongside LSD, psilocybin, ketamine, and other substances, have applications surrounding mental conditions such as depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, and end of life palliative care, and that the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recognized MDMA as a breakthrough medication for PTSD treatment due to his research. Despite this, Doblin said that stigma around these substances still affects research, noting that the UCL study saw attempted repression of its results. “We should be practicing science in a way that we’re sharing the results” said Doblin.

Reception to Doblin talk was positive. Henry Cohen ’20 said that Doblin “spoke to the great power psychedelic drugs such as MDMA, Psilocybin, and LSD hold in initiating the human body’s innate ability to heal itself and to access what we would call mystical states.” Cohen said he observed the “promise and peril of studying psychedelics” Doblin experienced in his research, and the “subsequent stigmatization of psychedelics by politicians, who made studying psychedelics nearly impossible.”

Mac Tambussi ’23 said the talk “[…]was electric. Psychedelics could be used for real health issues and based off of what I heard it could be a serious way to help people with mental health issues.”

Professor of Political Science Jim Hoefler described the talk as a “fascinating presentation” about “the potential benefit of psychedelic drugs in treating mental health disorders.” Hoefler also took note of Doblin’s assertion that “thoughtful, controlled […] use of these drugs could also lead to a bridging of communities across persistent religious and ideological divides.”

“Doblin left us with a healthy optimism, predicting that the drugs he studies for their capacities to treat PTSD, depression, anxiety, and the like, will be readily available to sick people and explorers of consciousness in the next ten to twenty years” Cohen added.

“Psychedelics: Science, Medicine, and Politics” took place on Monday, Feb. 24, at 7 p.m. in ATS. The event was sponsored by the Clarke Forum for Contemporary Issues, and co-sponsored by Department of Philosophy, the Department of Psychology, the Anthropology Club, the Neuroscience Club, the Health Studies Program, and the Program in Policy Studies.