Psychedelics as Disruptive Technology: Brad Burge of MAPS Talks The Future of Medicine

MAPS—the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies—has had a meteoric rise in support and enthusiasm lately. E&A spoke with Brad Burge of the MAPS team to talk about cryptocurrency support, growing approval of psychedelic therapy in the mainstream, moving forward with the next MDMA clinical trials and what’s next for MAPS.

First of all: thanks for talking with us at Evolve and Ascend! MAPS has been in the news a lot lately, especially with the recent Pineapple Fund announcing that it will match the next $4 million in contributions. What will this mean for MAPS this year?  

Thank you so much for the opportunity! It’s such a privilege and so exciting to be able to share so much amazing news so frequently. I’ll tell you one thing—it’s easy to be in the news a lot when you have exciting, world-changing news to share.

The $4 million dollar match from the Pineapple Fund is the massive exclamation mark on what has already been a thrilling year (it’s now February) in fundraising for MAPS. In early December, we still had $8 million left to raise in order to complete our $26 million fundraising drive for our upcoming Phase 3 clinical trials of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). With that match, which it looks like we are going make, and a few other major contributions in both cryptocurrency and regular currency, from anonymous as well as public donors, and from individuals as well as foundations, it is now fairly certain that we will be able to complete funding for the Phase 3 trials, and also to raise additional resources to continue expanding our research and education programs. With funding likely complete for the Phase 3 trials, we can focus on completing the trials with the greatest scientific integrity and preparing for FDA approval as soon as 2021.

There’s a lot of synergy between cryptocurrencies and psychedelic research! MAPS was invited to speak at the CryptoPsychedelic conference in Tulum, Mexico. Could you speak to this convergence of cutting edge innovation in decentralized currency and psychedelic science?

The key thing that psychedelic therapy and cryptocurrencies having common is that they are both what people are starting to call “disruptive technologies.” In other words, they are both technologies that have the capacity to transform existing social structures from the inside out— in the case of cryptocurrency, transforming economies and creating a more distributed and transparent currency system; and in the case of psychedelic therapy, transforming how we think of psychiatric treatment and helping people heal from trauma without reliance on conventional pharmaceuticals.

MAPS has received an incredible amount of support from the cryptocurrency communities, having started accepting Bitcoin donations all the way back in 2013. Today MAPS has received over $4 million in cryptocurrency contributions, not counting the $4 million match from the Pineapple Fund. It is clear that many in the cryptocurrency community—not just those who made millions during the recent spike in cryptocurrency values—want to see dramatic social change happen, and they rightly see MAPS and psychedelic science as aligned with those values. If people are wondering what people are going to do with all of those Bitcoin and Ethereum earnings, I think that philanthropic contributions are one of the most impactful ways to use them.

Could you explain to us what you’re discovering from clinical trials about the benefits of MDMA for psychotherapy?

The results of our Phase 2 clinical trials, which took place in the U.S., Canada, Switzerland, and Israel, were even more impressive than we had expected. These trials found that after just three sessions of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, 61% of people no longer qualified for PTSD after treatment. That’s not just saying that they had a reduction in symptoms, but that 61% actually didn’t have PTSD anymore. And remember, people aren’t continuing to take the drug as they would with antidepressants, but only took the drug three times in the context of psychotherapy.  We even found that 12 months later, that number had actually gone up without further treatment—at that point, 68% of people no longer had PTSD.

We also found that the cause of PTSD doesn’t seem to matter with MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. Regardless of whether the PTSD was from sexual assault, military service, violent crime, or any other cause, the treatment was equally effective. The Phase 3 trials that we are starting this year, with 200 to 300 subjects at 16 sites across the U.S., Canada, and Israel, will be the definitive trials that the FDA will look at to determine whether to approve the treatment. This past August, the FDA granted Breakthrough Therapy Designation to MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD, acknowledging that represents a potentially significantly advance over currently available treatments, and agreeing to expedite its development and review. If the Phase 3 results are remotely as promising as what we saw in the Phase 2 trials, I don’t expect the FDA will have any problem saying yes.

The last few years we’ve seen a major change of attitude towards psychedelics in “mainstream” opinion and culture. What has changed? Is this the result of the information age? Social media?

You’re absolutely right. There has definitely been a shift, and that shift continues to happen. Last summer a representative poll by YouGov showed that 53% of Americans actually support research in to psychedelic therapy despite their illegal status, compared to just over 20% who say they do not support it. And even more Americans would actually try the treatment themselves if they had a mental illness for which the drugs were approved, about 56%. That is certainly a huge change from 5, 10, or 20 years ago.  But that also tells us that there is lots more work to do, since you don’t get 20% people saying they don’t support, for example, cancer research.

There hasn’t been just one thing that’s changed to cause this shift in public opinion, but we can identify a few trends have all come together to make it more likely. First, there is the actual publication of research results. These publications have been coming with greater frequency and greater visibility in the last several years, because it has taken that long for the first psychedelic therapy studies, which began in early 2000s, to finish and get published. Data is very convincing,  as are the stories of the study participants themselves, which we’ve been promoting with a great deal of emphasis. Another thing that has changed is that people are becoming more aware of the negative side effects and addiction potential of currently available pharmaceutical treatments for mental illness. As a result, people are searching for alternatives, and psychedelic therapy with its few administrations and impressive preliminary results, have a great deal of promise. Finally, there is less and less support for the War on Drugs and its criminal justice approach to drug use, since it hasn’t worked to reduce drug abuse, and has actually been counterproductive, since its inception in the 1970s. People are now more willing than ever to consider that perhaps we don’t know everything about psychedelics, and perhaps we should study them more to find out how they are actually helpful and how they are actually harmful, rather than relegating them to an arbitrary category of illegitimate drugs. It’s all coming together, thanks to with a great deal of work from people around the world. We’re really having an impact!

What kind of impact will the legalization of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have?

What we have with psychedelics is an entirely new class of psychopharmaceuticals, at least from the perspective of mainstream psychiatry. It has been decades since psychiatry has found a new kind of tool to use to heal mental illness, relying as it does now on antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, antipsychotics, and opiates, all of which can have serious side effects and don’t work for many people. Psychedelic therapy represents an entirely new approach to psychiatric treatment, in that it does not just address symptoms, but rather the root cause of PTSD and mental illness, and only involves people using the drug a very limited number of times. That is very different than our current everyday pharmaceutical approach to controlling symptoms. Plus, the approval of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy will help make MAPS a self-sustaining non-profit,  with an income from the training of therapists and the sales of MDMA, enabling MAPS to expand our research and education programs even further.

Finally, legalization of psychedelic assisted psychotherapy is going to be a monumental and historical achievement, a triumph of good science and, hopefully, paving the way for a more empathic and compassionate culture. How do you see this legalization affecting culture and consciousness? And what’s the next step for MAPS?

The next step for MAPS will be completing our Phase 3 research program, and then finding additional ways that MDMA might be useful to assist therapy for other conditions and beginning to plan those studies as well. We are also focused on expanding possibilities for marijuana research by putting bipartisan pressure on the Department of Justice to end the federal monopoly on marijuana for research, and on completing our ongoing trial of smoked marijuana for symptoms of PTSD in U.S. veterans. We’re also continuing and expanding our Zendo Project harm reduction program, providing psychedelic peer support services at festivals and events around the world.

The approval of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD as a legal treatment will open the world’s eyes to the potential that MDMA and other psychedelics have for treating mental illness, expanding consciousness, enhancing creativity, and many other purposes that we have not yet discovered. The hidden logic behind the War on Drugs assumes that psychedelic states of consciousness are dangerous to society. Our culture absolutely supports altered states of consciousness, but only particular kinds (mostly the profitable ones), and usually only those types of consciousness involved reduced sensation and diminished awareness. When—not if—psychedelic therapies become an accepted and regulated part of mainstream culture, that will open the door for psychedelic experiences to begin playing an even greater role in our society’s development than it has before. I don’t think we can precisely predict the outcome of that, and I think that’s a good thing.

Thank you!

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