Harriet de Wit gives people drugs and studies what happens.
De Wit runs the Human Behavioral Pharmacology Lab at the University of Chicago, where she administers drugs like alcohol, caffeine, cannabis, LSD, ecstacy and psilocybin to volunteers in an effort to learn more about human biology and the nervous system.
On this week’s Nerdette, she told host Greta Johnsen that — in a clinical setting — it’s possible that some drugs can assist in the treatment of mental disorders like depression and PTSD.
Below are highlights from the conversation. Click "play" to hear the whole episode.
Greta Johnsen: How might something like MDMA be used therapeutically?
Harriet de Wit: In the case of MDMA, [doctors] rarely consider the drug as being effective by itself. Rather, it’s facilitating a therapeutic process. So they give the MDMA in combination with an eight-hour psychotherapy session. People who use it in those therapy sessions are thinking more that it does something to the relationship between the client and the therapist rather than just having a drug experience, per se.
Johnsen: What did you learn when you gave people MDMA?
De Wit: It makes it more difficult for [the test subjects] to detect anger and to some extent fear as well. ... So they’re less sensitive to threat.
Now, if you think about that in the context of a rave or a social situation where you don’t know many people, if you perceived less of a negative expression in other people’s faces, then that might make you more able to interact socially.
And then similarly, in a therapeutic situation, if you’re with your therapist, if you perceive less of a threatening expression in the therapist, you might be more willing to talk about difficult things. So here’s a drug that gets used both recreationally and for therapeutic reasons.
Johnsen: It’s one thing to do these drugs in professional therapeutic settings, but it’s another to find a friend of a friend who has LSD, right?
De Wit: I think you’re absolutely right. The whole world of researchers is feeling very cautious — cautiously optimistic — that if the drugs are used under controlled circumstances, they might have some potential benefits. But they’re also worried they’ll go the same direction LSD did in the ‘80s, or MDMA in the past as well.
Johnsen: How do you see therapeutic applications playing out 10 years down the line? Is this a thing where you’ll be able to go to an MDMA dispensary? Or do you see it more ideal in a clinical setting where you have a therapist who can write a prescription? How are you envisioning what that could look like?
De Wit: In the case of both MDMA and the psychedelic drugs LSD or psilocybin, they’re very potent drugs. And so I think whatever happens in a therapeutic situation, we have to keep a lot [of] control over who has access to them and how the drug is administered. We have to study it more carefully to see what’s the best way to give it.
There might be people who think all those drugs should be more freely available. I’m not one of them. I think that we’ve learned from mistakes that irresponsible people can use them in irresponsible ways, so I would be in favor of introducing them very cautiously into therapeutic practice.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire conversation.