This research is to be featured in the two-part Channel 4 documentary Drugs Live on 26/7 September at 10PM, which will show volunteers including the novelist Lionel Shriver, the actor Keith Allen and the former MP Evan Harris being scanned after taking MDMA and/or placebo.
A collaboration between the Beckley Foundation and Imperial College London is pioneering research into the neuropharmacological effects of psychoactive substances. Important results on brain imaging studies using psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) were published earlier this year.
Contrary to expectations, psilocybin decreased cerebral blood flow – particularly to brain regions that act as ‘connector hubs’, responsible for filtering and co-ordinating the flow of information through the brain. These ‘hubs’ impose a top-down control on our awareness, integrating sensory inputs and prior expectations into a coherent, organised and censored experience of the world. By reducing blood supply to the ‘hubs’, and thereby decreasing their activity, psilocybin allows a freer, less constrained state of cognition to emerge.
This finding provides a neuroscientific underpinning for the metaphor of the brain as a ‘reducing valve’ whose censoring activity is reduced by psychedelics – an idea popularised by the novelist Aldous Huxley in his 1954 essay The Doors of Perception.
The Beckley Foundation/Imperial College Psychopharmacological Research Programme has now been joined by Prof. Val Curran at University College London to conduct a series of brain imaging studies into the effects of MDMA. Growing out of the psilocybin studies, the new MDMA research also uses fMRI brain imaging technology and compares the effects of the drug with those of an inactive placebo.
MDMA is of particular interest because of its potential value as an aid to psychotherapy. A study in the USA, sponsored by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Science and supported by the Beckley Foundation, is investigating the use of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in war veterans, police officers and firefighters. With around 90,000 US troops in Afghanistan, the problems facing combatants are severe. As the Pentagon reported in June, deaths by suicide among active-duty military personnel are now running at about one per day, significantly outnumbering combat deaths.
The MDMA brain imaging study, sponsored by Channel 4, is still ongoing, but preliminary findings are providing valuable insights:
- When subjects are asked to recall positive memories under MDMA, they experience the memories as more vivid than with placebo. Correlating with this subjective experience, the brain scans reveal that visual areas of the brain are more strongly activated under MDMA than with placebo.
- MDMA decreases the brain’s response to negative memories. This suggests that MDMA may enable PTSD patients to access negative memories without an accompanying feeling of overwhelming threat – helping them to confront and deal with traumatic experiences.
- MDMA decreases the functional connectivity (i.e. degree of synchronisation) between the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and the posterior cingulate cortex, two brain regions whose connectivity is elevated in depression. Thus our results suggest that, like psilocybin, MDMA may be a valuable tool in treating depression by allowing over-rigid ruminative thought patterns to be reset.
Securing funding for research of this kind is not easy. Using MDMA and other controlled drugs for scientific purposes is legal, so long as the appropriate licences are granted and complied with. However, the prohibitionist policies towards psychoactive substances make many scientists, universities and funding bodies unwilling (or practically unable) to become involved.