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First Canadian MDMA-assisted trauma therapy trial wraps up in Vancouver

Psychedelic psychotherapists gave PTSD patients MDMA, the pure form of the drug known as ecstasy. The long-term results surprised even them.

Dr. Ingrid Pacey, a psychiatrist and lead investigator of the recently completed MDMA-assisted psychotherapy trial — the first of its kind in Canada — in her Vancouver home.

Jennifer Gauthier / Metro Order this photo

Dr. Ingrid Pacey, a psychiatrist and lead investigator of the recently completed MDMA-assisted psychotherapy trial — the first of its kind in Canada — in her Vancouver home.

Several Vancouver psychotherapists behind a head-turning Canadian drug study may not be raving ecstatically or blissed out about their findings.

But after wrapping up Canada’s first-ever trial treating trauma using the drug MDMA — the pure form of what’s popularly called ecstasy — they are nonetheless quite optimistic, Metro has learned.

According to psychiatrist Dr. Ingrid Pacey, the study’s principal investigator, the MDMA-assisted psychotherapy trial showed promising results for its six patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) so severe that no previous treatments had worked.

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Because MDMA — or methylenedioxymethamphetamine — is an empathogen, meaning it generates feelings of empathy and trust, the therapists hoped to see how patients might respond to counselling while they were on the drug.

“The biggest thing was there was a very increased level of trust,” Pacey told Metro in a phone interview. “They were really able to talk about painful material from the past that they were never able talk about before in their life — they’d been so frightened they’d block it.

“With the MDMA, they’d be distressed and crying, but they could talk it through and come to understand it in a way they couldn’t before. The trauma became a more manageable part of their history and they could go forward with their lives.”

PTSD is mental health condition associated with being exposed to threatening events or abuse, often afflicting victims of violence, soldiers, first responders, and sexual and childhood abuse survivors.

The illness is often tough to treat because many people with PTSD have developed a deeply engrained sense of mistrust in others, numbing, hyper-vigilance and isolation — and because it changes the brain itself.

The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) Canadian chair Mark Haden, left, and its clinical trial leader Dr. Allison Feduccia appear at the Military and Veteran Health Research Forum in Vancouver on Tuesday.

David P. Ball / Metro

The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) Canadian chair Mark Haden, left, and its clinical trial leader Dr. Allison Feduccia appear at the Military and Veteran Health Research Forum in Vancouver on Tuesday.

Three of Pacey’s subjects had experienced childhood abuse; the other three survived adult traumas.

Except for two given placebos for the first part of the trial, subjects were given 125 mg of MDMA with eight hours of therapy, followed by a supervised sleepover at the clinic site; the next day, they got further counselling. Months later, they were given half the original dose and offered more therapy, followed up after a year.

The study was part of an international initiative funded by Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). Pacey’s trial legally imported its MDMA from a Swiss lab; studies have ordered theirs from U.S. labs.

Although the results of the federally approved study — quietly authorized by Health Canada in 2013 — are still being “collated” alongside similar research in the U.S., other studies have backed up Pacey’s initial findings.

“We’re facilitating a healing process, not just a treatment of symptoms,” explained Dr. Allison Feduccia, MAPS’ clinical trial leader, in an interview. The neuropharmacologist was in Vancouver on Tuesday presenting MAPS’ findings at the Canadian Institute for Military & Veteran Health Research's annual forum — for which she won the three-day event's Homewood Mental Health Treatment Award for "improving and innovating clinical mental health" practice.

“Some people have been hurt by other people so much that they may not even want to let anybody else in," she told Metro. “MDMA facilitates an empathetic rapport between the therapists and the participants.”

MAPS Canada chair Mark Haden, an adjunct professor UBC School of Population and Public Health, told Metro that the Vancouver experiment is being formally wrapped up this week and another site in the city is being considered for the next phase of their research.

So far, MAPS-supported scientific research — much of it crowd-funded on the Internet — has treated more than 100 severe PTSD cases.

“Most PTSD therapy takes years,” Haden said in an interview. “We do it in three months.”

Feduccia said that after only two treatment sessions in MAPS’ research so far, 56 per cent of subjects “no longer met the criteria for PTSD” at all.

“What's even more remarkable,” she said, “is when we followed up 12 months later, 66 per cent of people no longer met criteria for PTSD … the effects of the treatment are continuing to grow.”

Pacey doesn’t need to see the collated data to know the treatment has “promise.”

“We have trauma survivors and war veterans here too,” she said. “For them to actually have a treatment to finally break through what before was something that brought their lives to a halt — that is very exciting.”

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