In this episode of The Soul of Life I speak with Dr. Michael Mithoefer, the lead investigator that has successfully piloted the first-ever study of MDMA, otherwise known as ecstasy, into the third and final stage of FDA approval for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. Dr. Mithoefer is featured as a lead character in the 2015 book Acid Test by award-winning journalist Tom Shroder, a meticulously researched history of the controversy and unprecedented healing properties associated with psychedelics.
The FDA granted Dr. Mithoefer and his colleagues “breakthrough status” to expedite its application for approval because they’re seeing such dramatic results working with veterans tormented by complex PTSD which is notoriously difficult to treat even with the best and most expensive therapies.
“We’ve had people with uncontrollable rage just have that stop happening after one session.”
I talk with Michael about the safety of therapeutically-supervised MDMA and how it works in the brain.
MDMA is referred to as an “empathogen,” because it activates our natural ability to be openhearted, friendly, and collaborative, something that immediately gets switched off when the brain goes into safe mode while experiencing emotional turmoil—even garden variety stress can do this, like a parent that yells every day, or a boss that expects to get perfection but only gives criticism. But for now, Dr. Mithoefer is using particularly egregious forms of trauma—combat experience—as the test use case with the FDA.
And unlike many people’s idea of all illegal drugs being dangerous or addictive, a full course of MDMA is given in micro-doses only 2-3 times in about a month—accompanied by an all-day psychotherapy session each time—but the patient essentially walks away born-again. They report seeing the world not just the way it was before their trauma but with eyes that are profoundly capable of seeing gratitude, joy and meaning in life.
“People think they’re grateful because they’re happy. Actually they’re happy because they’re grateful.”
I don’t think I’m the only one wondering, “Do I have to wait to get complex-PTSD to sign up?”
Wider access to these intense life-changing treatments for less acute suffering indeed may be coming down the line. Just a week ago the bestselling self-help guru and podcast superstar Tim Ferris talked about his experience of sexual abuse in childhood, for the first time publicly, and he credits Dr. Mithoefer for what he described as a breakthrough treatment with MDMA, as well as Dr.
Richard Schwartz and IFS therapy, someone I interviewed in episode 4 of the Soul of Life podcast. By the way, the Tim Ferris episode that talks about MDMA and Internal Family Systems Therapy is episode #464 of his show.
As a psychiatrist for many decades, Michael describes how all psychoactive medicines—medicines that act on brain function—are merely tools to help free the brain up to do what it knows how to do. Heal and function as a whole.
Michael Mithoefer, M.D., is a psychiatrist living in Asheville, NC, with a research office in Charleston, SC. In 2000, he began collaborating with MAPS Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies on the first U.S. Phase 2 clinical trial of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. He and his wife Annie have since conducted two of the six MAPS-sponsored Phase 2 clinical trials testing MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD, as well a study providing MDMA-assisted sessions for therapists who have completed the MAPS-sponsored MDMA Therapy Training Program, and a pilot study treating couples with MDMA-assisted psychotherapy combined with Cognitive-Behavioral Conjoint Therapy.
He is now Senior Medical Director for Medical Affairs, Training and Supervision at MAPS Public Benefit Corporation (MAPS PBC). He is a Grof-certified Holotropic Breathwork Facilitator, is trained in EMDR and Internal Family Systems Therapy, and has nearly 30 years of experience treating trauma patients. Before going into psychiatry in 1991, he practiced emergency medicine for ten years, served as medical director of the Charleston County and Georgetown County Emergency Departments, and has held clinical faculty positions at the Medical University of South Carolina. He has been board-certified in Psychiatry, Emergency Medicine, and Internal Medicine.