Caution about ‘miracle cures’
I thank Drs. Katherine Epstein and Helen Farrell for the balanced approach in their article “‘Miracle cures’ in psychiatry?” (Psychiatry 2.0, Current Psychiatry. September 2019, p. 13-16), which discussed the new psychiatric use of stimulants, dissociative agents, and hallucinogens. (Here I distinguish 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine [MDMA], ketamine, and psilocybin by mechanisms.) The frustration psychiatrists have felt in attempting to get good results from their treatment efforts has long inspired bold new strategies. While Drs. Epstein and Farrell cited the long history of misguided enthusiasms in psychiatric therapeutics, they omitted more recent backfires: bilateral electroconvulsive therapy, cingulotomy, rapid neuroleptization, and the overselling of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Chronic use and long-term adverse effects are usually underestimated at the beginning of new pharmacologies. Now, with an array of new psychoactive substances being introduced as therapies, we must learn from experience (the definition of mental health?) and use caution.
We need to pay serious attention to the small sample sizes and limited criteria for patient selection in trials of ketamine and MDMA, as well as to what sort of “psychotherapy” follows treatment with these agents. Many of us in psychiatric practice for the past 40 years have been humbled by patients’ idiosyncratic reactions to standard medications, let alone novel ones. Those of us who practiced psychiatry in the heyday of “party drugs” have seen many idiosyncratic reactions. Most early research with cannabinoids and lysergic acid diethylamide (and even Strassman’s trials with N,N-dimethyltryptamine [DMT]1-5) highlighted the significance of response by drug-naïve patients vs drug-savvy individuals. Apart from Veterans Affairs trials for posttraumatic stress disorder, many trials of these drugs for treatment-resistant depression or end-of-life care have attracted non-naïve participants.6-8 Private use of entheogens is quite different from medicalizing their use. This requires our best scrutiny. Our earnest interest in improving outcomes must not be influenced by the promise of a quick fix, let alone a miracle cure.
Sara Hartley, MD
Interim Head of Admissions
UC Berkley/UCSF Joint Medical Program
Disclosure: The author reports no financial relationships with any companies whose products are mentioned in this article, or with manufacturers of competing products.
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5. Strassman RJ, Qualls CR, Uhlenhuth EH, et al. Dose-response study of N,N-dimethyltryptamine in humans. II. Subjective effects and preliminary results of a new rating scale. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1994;51(2):98-108.
6. Albott CS, et al. Improvement in suicidal ideation after repeated ketamine infusions: Relationship to reductions in symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, and pain. Presented at: The Anxiety and Depression Association of America Annual Conference; Mar. 28-31, 2019; Chicago.
7. Abdallah CG, Sanacora G, Duman RS, et al. Ketamine and rapid-acting antidepressants: a window into a new neurobiology for mood disorder therapeutics. Annu Rev Med. 2015;66:509-523.
8. Mithoefer MC, Mithoefer AT, Feduccia AA, et al. 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA)-assisted psychotherapy for post-traumatic stress disorder in military veterans, firefighters, and police officers: a randomised, double-blind, dose-response, phase 2 clinical trial. Lancet Psychiatry. 2018;5(6):486-497.
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