Wednesday, May 29, 2019

3257. Praise Song for the Unloved Animals

By Margaret Renkl, The New York Times, May 27, 2019
The North American Opossum ( Didelphis virginiana)

NASHVILLE — Sing, O muse, of the lumbering opossum, of the nearsighted, stumbling opossum, whose only defenses are a hiss, a hideous scowl and a rank scent emitted in terror. Let us rejoice in the pink-nosed, pink-fingered opossum, her silvery pouch full of babies, each no bigger than a honeybee.

May your young thrive to ride upon your back. May they fatten and grow large and stumble off on their own to devour cockroaches and carrion and venomous snakes. May their snuffling root out all the ticks in our yards and all the snails in our flower beds. When they faint in the face of marauding dogs, we call back our baying hounds and wait for them to wake. We cheer when they rise and shake themselves. We send them with our blessings as they blunder back into the night.

Let peals of gratitude ring out for the glossy vulture, soarer of air currents, eater of gore. We gaze in wonder at your distant perfection, mistaking you for creatures we thoughtlessly love much more: for eagles or hawks or ospreys. Stolid in our heavy human bones, we follow you with our eyes, watching as you barely shift the angle of your wings to bank and glide, to circle and circle again.

May we remember in your circling the cycle you complete. On the ground, something is suffering. Something is coming near to the end of its time among us, but its life is not ending. Its life can never end. You are turning its body into something beautiful: blood and feathers and hollow bones. Earthbound no longer, the dead are rising again in you, rising and rising, lifted on air.

In summer we consider the whine of the mosquito, the secrecy of the spider, the temper of the wasp — who among us could love you? Who could love even one of you, bearing your poisons and your pain into the heavy summertime air? We could. We could love you if we remind ourselves that no creature is made up only of poison, that no life is only a source of irritation or pain.

We could love the mosquitoes for feeding the chittering chimney swifts wheeling in the sunset, for feeding the tree swallows flying low over the lake at dusk. We could love the spider for spinning the silk that holds together the moss of the hummingbird’s nest, the silk that stretches as the baby birds grow. We could love the wasp for eating the caterpillars that eat the tomato plants. We could love you all if only we remembered the tree swallows and the hummingbirds, if only we remembered the taste of homegrown tomatoes still warm from the sun.

On endless summertime evenings, on cool and generous summertime evenings, let us speak kindly of the red bat, the homely little bat with the smushed face and the hairless infants clinging to her fur by teeth and thumb and feet. In daylight, she dangles one-footed from a tree branch, masquerading as a dead leaf. At nightfall she unfolds her canny wings and skitters to her work, sweeping through the skies, circling under the streetlights, clearing the air of moths whose larvae eat our trees, sweeping up all the whining, stinging creatures we swat at in the dark.

Behold the rat snake gliding silently through the nighttime weeds. Behold the sleek skin, cool but not damp, and the clever darting tongue, sniffing out the contours of the world. Watch as she finds the crack under the toolshed door. Understand that she is finding too the tiny bald mice in the corner of a drawer full of painting rags — the tiny blind mice hidden in the soft remains of ancient bedsheets fallen to ruin.

Pity the young of the poor field mouse, born for just this purpose. Always there are mice — more mice than the world could ever hold if not for a system that includes this beautiful, sinewy creature, this silent celebration of muscle and grace, this serpent serving our uses but too often coming to a brutal end at the end of a hoe.

World, world, forgive our ignorance and our foolish fears. Absolve us of our anger and our error. In your boundless gift for renewal, disregard our undeserving. For no reason but the hope that one day we will know the beauty of unloved things, stoop to accept our unuttered thanks.

3256. Embracing Ecstacy: Can Bottling MDMA's Magic Transform Psychiatry?

a chilly spring morning in 2017, Boris Heifets took the podium to talk about MDMA in an Oakland, California, hotel ballroom packed with scientists, therapists, patients, and activists. If he noticed the occasional whiffs of incense and patchouli oil coming from the halls of the Psychedelic Science meeting, he didn’t let on. After all, anyone studying the therapeutic benefits of the drug that sparked an underground dance revolution 30 years ago knows that ravers, Burners, and old hippies flock to this meeting. It’s the world’s largest gathering on psychoactive substances.

Ecstasy enthusiasts and university professors alike heard several research teams report that MDMA helped patients recover from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other disabling psychiatric conditions after conventional treatments had failed. Meeting rooms buzzed with excited chatter about the prospect of MDMA getting approved as a prescription therapy for PTSD. That could come as early as 2021 if it proves safe and effective in large clinical studies that are just getting underway. For many advocates of this work, regulatory approval can’t arrive too soon.

But Heifets, a Stanford neuroanesthesiologist, had come to lay out an even grander role for the drug federal officials banned in 1985 in a futile effort to quash the burgeoning rave scene. Psychiatric treatments lag decades behind the rest of medicine, even though serious mental disorders carry just as much risk of disability and death as cardiovascular disease, Heifets explained. Psychiatrists desperately need more targeted therapies to give their patients the same kind of rapid, enduring relief that stents and bypass surgery provide for heart patients. He thought they’d benefit from thinking like surgeons. “I don’t want to suggest that we can cure psychiatric disease in 30 minutes in the operating room,” Heifets said. But we can harness powerful drugs like MDMA that act like a surgeon’s knife to alter consciousness and exorcise psychological demons. 

For many at the meeting and in the reemerging field of what some call psychedelic medicine, there’s no reason to look further than MDMA. A few hours after Heifets spoke, two therapists who used MDMA in sessions with 28 PTSD patients in Colorado reported that 19 participants no longer met the criteria for their diagnoses a year after treatment. MDMA helps melt the walls people hide behind to protect themselves, said Marcela Ot’alora, the principal investigator of the study. That allows patients to explore the coping strategies that have failed them for so long. Other teams reported encouraging results from small studies using MDMA to alleviate severe anxiety in adults with autism and in people confronting life-threatening illnesses. 

MDMA’s therapeutic power may come from strengthening the bond between therapist and patient by enhancing feelings of trust, emotional openness, and empathy, Heifets told the audience, pointing to the commentary he and his mentor, Robert Malenka, published in the journal Cell. To his surprise, a few therapists approached him after the talk to say they quote the paper to tell their patients that the world needs more empathy.

There’s no question that MDMA is showing therapeutic promise and could potentially help a range of socially debilitating disorders, Heifets allows. But MDMA, an amphetamine derivative, can raise heart rate and blood pressure, which can prove dangerous for people with cardiac and vascular problems. Though ecstasy is almost never pure MDMA, recreational use can cause panic attacks. In rare cases, it can trigger psychosis in susceptible individuals, which is an unnerving experience ravers have shared on Reddit. Such risks, combined with its bad rap as a party drug, may limit its ability to help patients, Heifets cautions. He’s convinced that MDMA has an even greater potential to revolutionize psychiatric care by giving scientists clues about how to develop next-generation drugs. Ideally, those drugs would be more clearly targeted and have fewer risks than MDMA. Potentially, they could even treat more disorders.

If psychiatrists are ever going to catch up with the rest of medicine, they need a better understanding of how the brain works so they can guide it back to health when it breaks down. MDMA is the only psychoactive drug that enhances positive social interactions and empathy. Heifets believes this offers researchers a unique opportunity to probe the brain.

The same properties that make ecstasy-fueled ravers hug between dance grooves also make the drug uniquely suited to help scientists figure out how the brain supports social behaviors. Because its powerful effects don’t last long, researchers can model those behaviors in animals and link them to cellular networks in the brain. Go to a rave, and you’ll find people glassy-eyed, staring inches from each other’s faces in rapt conversation, Heifets says. What they’re saying doesn’t matter. The deep emotional connection they’re experiencing, however, does. “That’s what we’re after. How can we bottle that?”

If scientists can capture that magic, he believes, they can sidestep the inherent difficulties of working with a demonized substance steeped in the trappings of a subculture that still inhabits the fringes of society. After the Colorado investigators described how they used MDMA in therapy, a woman in the audience complimented them on the power of their aura, which she said was violet blue and “pretty incredible.” After a brief pause, Ot’alora smiled and thanked the woman, who said she works in the Akashic Records, described by adherents as a sort of cosmic transcript of everything that has ever happened in the history of the world.

Talk of auras and Akashic Records comes with the territory at a meeting with “psychedelic” in the name, and most researchers take it in stride. They’re waiting to see if mainstream medicine will embrace MDMA, assuming the promising results from early PTSD studies hold up under the scrutiny of the larger clinical trials. But Heifets doesn’t want to take any chances that shifting political winds will once again shut down work with the still-popular club drug — along with any hope of ushering in a new era of psychiatry. works in Malenka’s lab in one of the nation’s largest regenerative medicine facilities. The center was built a decade ago to foster groundbreaking therapies for some of medicine’s most intractable diseases. A massive Chihuly chandelier hangs just inside the center’s front entrance where the sculptor’s trademark glass tendrils evoke the networks of neurons that hold the secrets to health and disease. It’s just a short walk from the lab to the hospital where Heifets spends one day a week tending to brain surgery patients.

Heifets didn’t set out to study a controlled substance. “My mom told me I should never study psychedelics,” he says with an impish grin. “It’s a good way to kill a promising career.”

Still, MDMA piqued his interest even as an undergrad. So when he wandered into Malenka’s lab one day and heard him speaking with a colleague about a controlled substance application to do research with MDMA, he went “full in.”

Heifets was just seven years old in the summer of 1984 when the Drug Enforcement Administration proposed new rules to ban MDMA under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, citing “illicit trafficking,” high abuse potential and “no legitimate medical use.” By then, ecstasy had become so popular, Heifets says, that you could buy it with a credit card over the counter at clubs in Texas.

The allure of MDMA’s feel-good effects has captured the imagination of adventurers ever since a trailblazing cadre of psychotherapists started using it in the late 1970s. MDMA was discovered in 1912 by German chemists looking for drugs to stop bleeding. It was rediscovered in 1976 by chemist Alexander Shulgin. The legendary psychedelic chemist famously cataloged the effects of nearly 200 psychedelic compounds he’d made in his home lab. He reported feeling “pure euphoria” on MDMA, which he called his “low-calorie Martini” with the “special magic,” and shared the compound with psychotherapists he thought might find it of use.

Those therapists had seen more than a thousand MDMA-assisted breakthroughs with patients, with no major side effects, by the time the government moved to criminalize the drug. Many of them petitioned federal officials to keep it available for their patients. Philip Wolfson, a San Francisco-area psychiatrist who’d used MDMA in hundreds of therapy sessions, testified that the drug had helped patients in severe emotional distress with a poor prognosis. “I am extremely concerned that this promising new psychotherapeutic agent will be lost to the medical profession,” he said.

The government’s campaign to ban a drug with potential medical benefits caught the attention of the era’s king of daytime talk TV, Phil Donahue. In 1985, he devoted an entire show to MDMA. “It makes you love everybody,” Donahue said. “Now, who doesn’t want to take ecstasy?” Several people on the show explained how MDMA had helped them come to terms with life-threatening illnesses and heal fractured family relationships in therapy. Chicago addiction expert Charles Schuster, however, said he had “great concern” about MDMA because he and his colleagues had found that MDA, a chemical cousin, produced long-term brain damage in rats. “If MDA does this,” Schuster warned, “then I have reason to suspect that MDMA may as well.”

That was all DEA deputy assistant administrator Gene Haislip, who also condemned MDMA on Donahue’s show, needed to hear. A month after appearing on Donahue, Haislip announced an emergency ban on MDMA. 

The DEA’s ban effectively shut down research on MDMA’s medical benefits, but it did nothing to stop the explosion of underground ecstasy-fueled parties where DJs prided themselves on spinning the most eclectic electronica. Filmmakers mined raves’ trance-inducing beats and light shows as the backdrop for thrillers, crime capers, documentaries, and love stories. Irvine Welsh of Trainspotting fame explored his fascination with “rolling” on ecstasy in a collection of “chemical romance” stories, one of which was eventually adapted for the big screen.

Meanwhile, Schuster was tapped to head the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), which showered scientists investigating MDMA’s toxicity with millions of federal dollars. It didn’t take long for the NIDA’s investment to pay off. In 2002, researchers led by George Ricaurte — a co-author on Schuster’s MDA study — reported in the prestigious journal Science that recreational doses of ecstasy could cause permanent brain damage in monkeys and possibly lead to Parkinson’s disease. Psychiatrists familiar with the drug questioned the plausibility of the $1.3 million study, which was funded partly by grants on methamphetamine toxicity. Politicians, meanwhile, cited the research to push the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act — originally introduced in 2002 by Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) as the Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy (RAVE) Act — to imprison and fine club owners and promoters for allowing MDMA on their property.

Five months after Congress passed its anti-rave legislation, Ricaurte reported that he’d mistakenly given his animals meth, not MDMA, and retracted the paper. The fiasco, described as an “almost laughable laboratory blunder,” got its own chapter in the book When Science Goes Wrong: Twelve Tales from the Dark Side of Discovery. But the damage had been done. Federal officials continued to bankroll their preoccupation with proving that MDMA causes brain damage while ignoring known risks along with its healing potential. 

It took researchers almost 20 years after the ban to get federal permission to test MDMA as an experimental therapy. But federal agencies don’t fund clinical studies on the drug, forcing researchers to rely on nonprofit sources such as the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). 

MAPS director Rick Doblin, who founded the organization in 1986, has been instrumental both in getting the Food and Drug Administration’s permission to test MDMA in people and in shepherding it through the drug approval process. Although MDMA could gain FDA approval for PTSD within two years, Doblin is working to make it available as soon as August under the agency’s expanded access program. The program gives patients with severe or life-threatening illnesses access to experimental drugs when no other suitable options exist. They’ll have to pay for the drug themselves and recognize that there could be risks since the drug hasn’t been approved yet, Doblin explains.

To qualify for the trial, patients will need to have PTSD and tried multiple therapies that didn’t work. MAPS is training therapists to work with MDMA, and it’s setting up expanded access sites around the country, Doblin says.

While Doblin’s trying to make up for time lost to restrictive drug laws, Heifets worries about moving too fast. “MDMA might work for a lot of people, but there’s going to be a large subset for whom it may create problems,” he says. The clinical trials exclude people with conditions that MDMA might exacerbate, and they give the drug under closely supervised conditions. Using pure MDMA in this way has revealed minimal risks. 

That’s not what concerns Heifets. Rather, he’s concerned about what might happen if MDMA is given in unrestricted, unsupervised settings. Say therapists use the drug without following the carefully crafted MAPS protocol. Who will help people manage the tidal wave of emotions that come up without feeling overwhelmed? Plus, some psychiatric drugs don’t mix with MDMA, so patients will have to be weaned off their meds, Heifets says. “Who’s watching that process? We’re in new territory here.”

Ideally, everyone who provides MDMA-assisted therapy will have received MAPS training. But expanding use from a few hundred to the millions of people with PTSD raises the potential for a susceptible person to have a bad reaction that triggers another government backlash, Heifets says. “How are we going to avoid that outcome this time?”

That’s why he wants to focus on nailing down the brain networks associated with MDMA’s heightened feelings of emotional closeness and empathy. Learning how MDMA works could point to other treatments, maybe ones with fewer risks. knew he wanted to study the brain from an early age. But at medical school, he grew increasingly frustrated with his profession’s failure to help people. During a rotation at the Bronx Psychiatric Center, where most patients had failed to respond to every treatment offered, it hit him just how little doctors knew about the roots of psychological distress. “I was so dissatisfied with our ability to do anything,” he says.

A stint in the operating room gave him hope that he could find a way to help people. Psychiatrists are stuck with “wimpy,” often ineffective drugs that take weeks or months to kick in, he says. But anesthesiologists have access to the most powerful psychoactive drugs in the hospital and can monitor major changes in consciousness in ways that aren’t possible outside the OR. That’s when he started thinking: what if psychiatrists could harness potent consciousness-altering drugs to heal broken brains the way cardiologists use surgery to repair broken hearts?

“This is really where psychiatry meets anesthesia,” he says. Anesthesiologists rely on potent drugs that quickly alter consciousness so surgical patients don’t feel physical pain. Similarly, psychiatrists working with drugs like MDMA can harness fast-acting mind-bending drugs to mold the brain’s perception of psychological distress. Researchers reported 20 years ago that MDMA, in the proper therapeutic setting, alleviates the fear that prevents patients from revisiting traumatic events, a vital part of the healing process. Exactly how MDMA does that still remains unclear.

A few years ago, the Department of Veterans Affairs declared psychotherapy to be the definitive treatment for PTSD; conventional drugs mostly just mask symptoms. But therapy often fails because people can’t bear to relive their trauma. Studies show an increased risk of suicide for veterans with PTSD. Effectively, people are dying for want of better therapies. The success stories from when MDMA was still legal convinced second-generation researchers like Michael Mithoefer that the drug might jump-start the psychological healing process. But whether it could pass muster as a standard treatment had never been pursued in formal research until Mithoefer, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the Medical University of South Carolina, launched the first study with MAPS nearly two decades ago.

Today Mithoefer, a PTSD specialist, is overseeing clinical trials of MDMA-assisted therapy for hundreds of patients at 15 sites in North America and Israel. If all goes well in these formal studies, MDMA could get the green light from the FDA as a prescription drug for PTSD within two years. He’s cautiously optimistic. “We have to wait to see the results before we can say that we’ve definitively established safety and efficacy,” Mithoefer says. “It’s looking promising, but we need to see what happens.”

To get FDA approval, Mithoefer and his team don’t have to show how MDMA works. (“If we did, Prozac would never have been approved,” he says.) Still, he says, there may well be other drugs that are even better than MDMA.

As far as MAPS’s Doblin is concerned, there’s no point in trying to find another MDMA-like drug when the real thing is showing such progress. “[Alexander Shulgin] tinkered with the molecule in hundreds of different ways, but ended up feeling that of all the ones that he did actually produce MDMA was still the best at what MDMA does,” he says.

Doblin allows that drug companies could potentially improve on MDMA. But they’ve shown little interest in a controlled substance with an expired patent that can’t deliver a fast return on investment. And nonprofits like MAPS don’t have the resources to invest in drug discovery or to produce the amount of safety data the FDA requires. 

A lot of that safety data, ironically, came from government efforts to demonize the drug, to no avail. “Big governments all over the world have spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to identify the risks,” Doblin says. “So we have summarized the world scientific literature on MDMA and presented that to FDA.”

Aside from elevated heart rate and blood pressure, the risks include overheating and water intoxication. But it was nothing like the long-term brain damage NIDA seemed so intent on proving. Doblin envisions a day when MDMA will be available far beyond the clinic for everything from couples therapy to personal growth.

It’s a prospect that concerns some psychiatrists, including Charles Grob who led a recent study using MDMA to ease severe anxiety in autistic adults. The idea of millions and millions of people taking MDMA “makes me dizzy,” says Grob, director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, Los Angeles. MDMA needs to be administered by trained professionals in special settings with clear-cut safety parameters, he says. Without these measures in place, he worries about “the whole enterprise going off the rails.”

Marcela Ot’alora, who runs the MAPS PTSD study in Colorado, agrees that MDMA may not be for everybody. About three-quarters of PTSD patients in her study learned to cope with their symptoms, but that leaves a quarter who did not. “It’s great if we can find something else that maybe would help people that are not going to be helped by MDMA,” she says.

That’s another thing that suggests Heifets’ approach might be a good one: finding better treatments depends on getting a better handle on how they work, which is insight that’s missing for most psychiatric drugs.

Scientists stumbled upon the original antidepressants by accident: patients who took new drugs for tuberculosis in the 1950s reported feelings of euphoria. That led to theories about tinkering with neurotransmitters to improve moods and decades of drug development. That pipeline, however, is now dry, Heifets says. 

Both Prozac — a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) — and MDMA affect the same brain chemical: serotonin, which regulates mood, learning, and memory. But no one gets an insatiable urge to approach strangers after taking Prozac, Heifets points out. Clearly, they act in different ways.
Psychiatrists have long treated the brain as a chemical soup and enlisted drugs to target one chemical after another, he says. But those drugs can cause terrible side effects because they’re not specific enough. Increasingly, researchers view psychiatric disorders as changes in the connections between specific groups of cells, or circuits, in the brain. Different regions of the brain talk to each other to support normal responses to everyday events, like meeting strangers or navigating potential threats. When those lines of communication between circuits break down, normal responses do, too. Figuring out how MDMA changes these connections to enhance emotional closeness may help explain what goes wrong in people who can’t manage social situations, Heifets says.

In general, psychiatry hasn’t paid much attention to how social factors affect mental health, says Harriet de Wit, director of the University of Chicago’s Human Behavioral Pharmacology Laboratory. Yet depression, schizophrenia, and psychosis, for example, share a strong sense of withdrawal from social interactions and society, even though the underlying process likely differs, she says. A better understanding of how MDMA works might point to other drugs that can specifically affect the different social processes. 

Heifets has been trying to do just that under the guidance of Malenka, a leader in enlisting cutting-edge tools in rodents to understand how changes in brain circuits affect behavior. “Rob’s been my biggest advocate and mentor,” Heifets says. “I’m the only one in the lab working on MDMA.”

“This is where Boris and I bonded,” Malenka says. “It’s just a fascinating drug that I’ve been wanting to study for, my god, probably over 30 years because I think it’s a window into the brain and how the brain works.”

Malenka believes MDMA could ultimately help people whose illness makes healthy social interactions difficult or impossible. “Imagine going through life where you can’t have a positive social experience,” he says. “MDMA really taps into something that enhances the ability to have the most positive social experience.” But where Doblin sees a role for MDMA for everything from PTSD to personal growth, Malenka sees a powerful compound with the potential to harm as well as heal. That’s not demonizing the drug, he says, but recognizing the need to understand the good and the bad. For Malenka, MDMA is like any other substance that can affect brain function. Drilling into the details of how it works will help clinicians make rational decisions about how to use it, he says.

Toward that end, Malenka hopes the experiments they’re doing in mice will influence the clinical studies by showing, for example, that a specific brain circuit isn’t functioning properly in a specific psychiatric disorder. That, in turn, could suggest new therapies that drug companies would be willing to invest in.

Recent work from Malenka’s lab shows that the release of serotonin in a region of the brain’s “reward circuit” — which reacts to pleasurable activities like eating and sex — can enhance social behavior in mice bred to have autism-like behaviors. Research from other groups working in mice showed that MDMA increases “fear extinction,” a decline in fear responses triggered by trauma, which appears to be critical for successful PTSD therapy.

MDMA may be acting like a sort of psychological accelerant, hastening changes in the brain that lay the groundwork for recovery. The idea of starting a process as a bridge to healing is a concept that’s been missing in psychiatry, Heifets says. The trick is figuring out novel or existing drugs that can build that bridge. “We probably have a ton of drugs that are already FDA approved that we just don’t know what their potential is,” he says.

exploring how MDMA works in the brain, psychologists are still figuring out how it works in the therapist’s office. “We’re still kind of waving our hands around,” says de Wit. “There’s general agreement that it’s not just the drug itself, but it’s the combination of how the drug changes the therapeutic interaction. I don’t think we know enough about what happens in therapeutic interactions to know whether it’s something about the connection that the patient feels with the therapist or their willingness to be open about their emotions or whether they feel less judged.”

Whatever is going on is a radical departure from standard psychiatric treatments. Rather than taking SSRIs indefinitely to keep symptoms from returning — assuming they ever go away — patients take just a few doses of MDMA in therapy and experience lasting relief.

At the Oakland Psychedelic Science meeting, where Heifets spoke two years ago, several practitioners emphasized the power of the relationship between therapist and patient to aid recovery. Psychiatrist Philip Wolfson, who urged the DEA to keep MDMA legal in the 1980s, said that MDMA revolutionized psychotherapy in part because therapists had to stay with people for as long as they needed. “That meant we exposed ourselves more as therapists,” he said. “And we changed from the 50-minute hour, which was always repugnant to me.”

Wolfson reported preliminary results from sessions using MDMA in 18 patients facing life-threatening illnesses. His study, like other MAPS-funded studies, involved intensive psychotherapy lasting at least eight hours in three sessions. The initial analysis for a subset of patients showed marked improvement in scores for both depression and fear of dying for those who took MDMA. But patients who took placebos also improved, a result Wolfson attributed to the effects of such intensive psychotherapy. Even so, after he recently finished the full analysis, it was clear that the MDMA group had the bigger drop in anxiety compared to the placebo group. Everyone had the option to do a follow-up MDMA session, he told me. Everyone opted for MDMA, and everyone felt even better as a result.

Ot’alora, the PTSD researcher who handled the compliment on her aura without missing a beat, has seen similar therapeutic breakthroughs without MDMA. But it can take years. With MDMA sessions, people often show improvement right away, she says, as the drug gives them the inner resources to work through their trauma. Even people who still had trouble coping with their PTSD symptoms after the treatment said it helped them when nothing else had, she says. “Every single participant I’ve worked with has said, ‘I don’t understand why this is not available to everybody who’s suffering.’”

Researchers feel buoyed by the promising results. Yet they’re keenly aware of the stigma around drugs like MDMA. “Now we have data saying that, yes, this is actually helping. It’s no longer anecdotal,” says Ot’alora. “And there are still people who are incredibly skeptical.”

Blame George Ricaurte’s fateful lab blunder. It doesn’t matter that his paper was retracted. It’s still on the internet, including the NIDA’s website. Even today, Ot’alora says, people tell her they read that MDMA causes holes in your brain. And she’s seen both patients and parents of younger patients bristle at the idea of using what they see as a club drug for therapy — until they see the results.

For years, meetings like Psychedelic Science were the only place scientists researching psychoactive drugs were invited to speak. “The government and industry have not put one cent into this research, so it has to be supported by donors,” Mithoefer says.

Still, attitudes among psychiatrists have changed radically since the first MDMA studies, Mithoefer says. Now, he and his colleagues are presenting their work mostly at mainstream meetings where he’s seeing a lot of excitement around the idea that drugs like MDMA can trigger a therapeutic process with higher rates of success. “And nobody’s bringing up their auras,” he says with a laugh.

And now, scientists who study MDMA don’t have to worry about throwing away their careers.

For Heifets, one of the most intriguing things to come from lab work on MDMA is the notion that a drug can strengthen the bond between patient and therapist. “There’s no real precedent for that in psychiatry,” he says. And that may be where the path to transforming psychiatry begins: in abandoning the notion that you can treat complex human brain disorders with drugs alone. It’s time to recognize that you can’t treat millions of veterans with PTSD by giving them a pill, whatever it is, and sending them home, Heifets says. The research on MDMA is showing that you might be able to kick off recovery with a drug, but interaction with other people matters, too. In fact, the relationships with other people — like therapists — may matter even more.

“Fundamentally, there is a need for some kind of human connection,” he says. “We can’t just farm out all of our psychiatric issues to the drug industry.”

Monday, May 27, 2019

3255. Film Review: The Biggest Little Farm

By Kamran Nayeri, May 26, 2019


This film is about the Apricot Lane Farms located 40 miles north of Los Angeles and established in 2011.  Directed and narrated by John Chester, a longtime documentary cinematographer, the film mostly gives the impression that the farm is the work of a husband and wife team, John and his wife Molly, the former chef and blogger, who were fed up with life in Los Angeles and decided to become “traditional” farmers.  The film shows an young couple who have no clue about farming guided by a guru named Allen who preaches biodiversity in farming (“let nature do the work”) start with an exhausted soil to make it rich with life again year after year. Each progress bring about a new challenge. Until by the end of the film the farm becomes commercially sustainable. John Chester closes the narrative by admitting that their original hope for farming in harmony with nature has failed and he resign himself with a measure of “disharmony” with it.

Of course, the Chesters’ initial idealism and the progress they have made to replace some key practices of industrial farming with “sustainable” practices in more harmonious with nature is commendable.  But the Apricot Lane Farms is far from what is needed to replace industrial agriculture which lies at the base of the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization’s malignant relationship with nature with future humanity needs in order to survive, that is, a society that ensure harmony one among people and with the rest of nature.

Consider one of the many conflicts (John Chester calls it “disharmony”) with the rest of nature. The Chesters are raising chicken for eggs to sell on the market for profit. The chicken invite hungry coyotes to nightly raids which then set up escalating conflict with John and Molly. One day, John Chester picks up his gun and shoots an intruding coyote for the simple crime of trying to survive by eating a meal at the farm.  It is very clear that he does this as a “last option” and some in the audience may judge John’s killing of the coyote as a necessary measure to save the lives of peaceful chicken from wild coyotes. But it must be self-evident that as the farmer John is protecting the chicken not because of altruism but because it is a commodity with a market value. Why else would farmers raise farm animals if not for generating a stream of income and in Chesters’s case profit?

The conflict with nature is rooted in the very idea of the farm because it is an integrated artificial ("man made") ecosystem with domesticated plants and animals that provides controlled environment for extraction of wealth from nature. These animals as well as many domesticated plants depend on the farmer for their life.  and all animals and plants that intrude in the production process in the farm must be eliminated by the farmer.  Agriculture, is the basis of all civilization and civilization, which has always been some form of class society has been in perpetual war with the rest of nature and civilization itself is riff with social stratification and various forms of oppression and exploitation, hence ongoing social conflict. Thus, ecosocial crisis is an unavoidable consequence of all civilization. The anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization has simply globalized this ecosocial crisis leading to existential threats to humanity and much of life on Earth. In the film we see its manifestations in California drought and wildfires which John Chester documents but does not ponder except as a threat to his farm.

The Apricot Lane Farm is no exception. While its use of agroecological methods are certainly a step in the right direction, nothing essential in the relationship of the farmer with the animals and plants that it grows is changed. Although the Chesters call their employee their “team” they are still wage workers working in a capitalist firm. At the beginning of the film, John Chester talks about securing the backing of "investors" for their business plan (the farm) and anyone knowledgeable about farming can easily tell that their project has been a multi-million dollar one from the beginning. According to the website for the farm, it currently has some two dozen full time employees and without a doubt the farm this size could not operate without seasonal agricultural workers.

Of course, the audience is charmed with many adorable animals and the landscape lush with plants and an enriched soil .  But humanity is facing an existential ecosocial crisis that calls for radical action on massive scale worldwide.   To tackle crisis, billions of working people must realize that humanity must stop acting as the God Species and we must chart a course to step back into a much more modest niche like any other megafauna occupies as we also transcend the capitalist system.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

3254. The Day Christian Fundamentalism Was Born

By Mathew Avery Sutton, The New York Times, May 24, 2019

For many Americans, it was thrilling to be alive in 1919. The end of World War I had brought hundreds of thousands of soldiers home. Cars were rolling off the assembly lines. New forms of music, like jazz, were driving people to dance. And science was in the ascendant, after helping the war effort. Women, having done so much on the home front, were ready to claim the vote, and African-Americans were eager to enjoy full citizenship, at long last. In a word, life was dazzlingly modern.

But for many other Americans, modernity was exactly the problem. As many parts of the country were experimenting with new ideas and beliefs, a powerful counterrevolution was forming in some of the nation’s largest churches and Bible institutes. A group of Christian leaders, anxious about the chaos that seemed to be enveloping the globe, recalibrated the faith and gave it a new urgency. They knew that the time was right for a revolution in American Christianity. In its own way, this new movement — fundamentalism — was every bit as important as the modernity it seemingly resisted, with remarkable determination.

Beginning on May 25, 1919, 6,000 ministers, theologians and evangelists came together in Philadelphia for a weeklong series of meetings. They heard sermons on everything from “Christ and the Present Crisis” to “Why I Preach the Second Coming.” The men and women assembled there believed that God had chosen them to call Christians back to the “fundamentals” of the faith, and to prepare the world for one final revival before Jesus returned to earth. They called their group the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association.

A Minneapolis Baptist preacher named William Bell Riley organized the meetings. A tall, austere and uncompromising man, Riley was a natural-born crusader, who rarely saw a religious fight he did not think he could win. Under his leadership, the event drew participants from all around the county. Contrary to popular stereotypes, the centers of fundamentalism were in the nation’s major northern and western cities — New York, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Seattle — and not the rural South.

The men and women at the conference were all white. On questions of race, fundamentalists defended the status quo. African-American and Latino Christians, even when they shared the same theology as their white counterparts, were systematically excluded from fundamentalists’ churches and organizations.

In many ways, the Philadelphia meeting marked the public beginning of the new fundamentalist movement. “The hour has struck,” Riley declared at the time, “for the rise of a new Protestantism.” He described the inauguration of his organization and the rise of fundamentalism as more significant t

Unlike more mainstream Protestants, fundamentalists did not expect to see a righteous and holy kingdom of God established on earth. Instead, they taught that the Holy Spirit would soon turn this world over to the Antichrist, a diabolical world leader who would preside over an awful holocaust in which those true believers who had not already been raptured to heaven would suffer interminable tribulations.

Fundamentalists believed that signs, prophesied long ago in the Bible to signal the approaching apocalypse, were beginning to appear. At the conference and in the years that followed, they matched up biblical prophecy with world events. Perhaps the most significant sign was the world war. In the New Testament, Jesus had told his disciples that “wars and rumors of wars” would presage the end times. The horrific conflict that had torn Europe apart seemed to fulfill this prophecy, and fundamentalists predicted that an even greater war loomed on the horizon. While President Woodrow Wilson was in Paris working on the peace treaty, he received a telegram from the fundamentalist William Blackstone. “Do not forget the prophetic word of God,” Blackstone admonished, “For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them.”

The reshaping of Palestine served as another warning that the end was near. Fundamentalists believed that the return of Jews to the Holy Land must precede the second coming of Christ, and the war seemed to make this a real possibility. “Soon the Turk will make his last stand at Jerusalem,” a fundamentalist explained, “the day of salvation will end, the great day of the Lord will begin, the time of trouble such as never was will suddenly break upon the world, the King of glory will appear, and the great conflict so long waged with sin will forever end.” That the British captured Jerusalem in 1917 and declared Palestine a homeland for Jews seemed indisputable proof to fundamentalists that prophecy was being fulfilled.

Fundamentalists viewed the proposed League of Nations as another potential landmark on the road to Armageddon. They were sure that as humans moved toward the end times, governments around the world would cede their independence to a charismatic world leader who would actually be the Antichrist. As the Senate debated the league, fundamentalists made their views clear. One predicted that the leader of the League of Nations would likely be “the Politico-Beast described in Daniel, and in the Book of Revelation … the Anti-Christ!” Their beliefs drove them to support the Senate’s “irreconcilables,” those who fought the president’s efforts to join the league.

Fundamentalists believed that in the end times, oppressive governments would clamp down on Christians’ rights and liberties. As a result, they opposed any expansion of the power of the federal government and became highly suspicious of anything that seemed to undermine their religious freedoms and longstanding privileges. The federal government’s wartime Committee on Public Information validated their fears. “The demand of the State will leave no room for freedom of thought, or independence of action in any direction whatsoever,” the evangelist W.W. Fereday wrote. “The circumstances of the War have already furnished the machinery for this.” “Practically everything and everybody,” he worried, would soon be under government control.

The growing prominence of Darwinian evolution was another problem. Although fundamentalists differed on how to understand the account of creation in Genesis, they agreed that God was the author of creation and that humans were distinct creatures, separate from animals, and made in the image of God. Some believed than an old earth could be reconciled with the Bible, and others were comfortable teaching some forms of God-directed evolution. Riley and the more strident fundamentalists, however, associated evolution with last-days atheism, and they made it their mission to purge it from the schoolroom.

What fundamentalists viewed as declining morals served as yet additional evidence that the Bible’s prophets had accurately forecast the modern age. Jesus had said that just before his return, humans would be acting as they had in the days of Noah and of Lot. In those Old Testament stories, God had punished humankind for engaging in sexual sins. Fundamentalists in turn saw sin in the destabilization of gender roles by the war, which led Americans to compromise their morals. They criticized the ways in which the fight for women’s suffrage was driving women out of the home, and they worried that birth control was undermining the family.

Changes in theology also troubled fundamentalists. Over the previous few decades, many Protestants had sought to conform Christian beliefs to current intellectual trends. They embraced the latest scientific ideas about human evolution and, using literary critical methods, questioned the veracity and historical accuracy of the biblical text.

As American Christians encountered new peoples and religions from around the world, some concluded that their faith was not unique, and that perhaps God worked through more than one religion. Fundamentalists did not view these “modernist” theological trends as a product of different interpretive methods and presuppositions. Instead they saw religious modernism as an ominous sign that the last days were now upon them.

The fundamentalist message resonated with hundreds of thousands of white Americans. Fundamentalists were better students of global news than just about any other group of Americans. With their Bibles in one hand and their newspapers in another, they provided careful analyses of current events.

They offered all who would listen access to seemingly secret knowledge. They provided hope and understanding in a seemingly hopeless and senseless world. They assured all who would follow them that when Jesus returned to earth, the ultimate victory would be theirs. Fundamentalists established a form of Christianity that was relevant and up-to-date and that offered not only eternal salvation, but instant deliverance from the problems they saw around them.

The 1919 meeting in Philadelphia was just the beginning. Soon fundamentalist magazines, independent Bible institutes, annual conferences and, beginning in the mid 1920s, church-run radio stations provided the vital links that melded them into a national network. Although we do not have precise statistics indicating exactly how large the fundamentalist movement was in the years immediately after World War I, we know that tens of thousands of young men and women attended fundamentalist institutes, and hundreds of thousands subscribed to fundamentalist magazines.

As the fundamentalist movement grew and expanded, its leaders waged war against religious modernists for control of the major Presbyterian, Baptist and Methodist churches, colleges, seminaries and missionary boards. The liberal Christian Century magazine summed up the controversy in 1924: “The differences between fundamentalism and modernism are not mere surface differences, which can be amiably waved aside or disregarded, but they are foundation differences, structural differences, amounting in their radical dissimilarity almost to the differences between two distinct religions.” “The God of the fundamentalist,” the writer concluded, “is one God; the God of the modernist is another. The Christ of the fundamentalist is one Christ; the Christ of the modernist is another. The Bible of fundamentalism is one Bible; the Bible of modernism is another.”

But that’s not quite right: Although fundamentalists claimed to represent the traditional faith, they were pioneering innovators who remade Christianity for tumultuous times. There was little “conservative” about them. Although fundamentalists made modernist theology one of their primary enemies, they drew on modernist thought and practice just as much as their liberal counterparts. Their dependence on modernism was most obvious in how they read their Bibles. They treated it like an engineering manual. They saw individual verses as pieces of data that they could extract, classify, cross-reference, quantify, place into taxonomies and then reassemble, to form something new. Unlike actual religious conservatives, they had no sense of tradition or community, nor did they care much for the historic creeds. Fundamentalists were highly individualistic and eager to use the latest technology — radio, especially. Christian fundamentalism and theological modernism were two sides of the same coin; both illustrated the all-consuming power of modernist thought.

Fundamentalism fostered in believers a sense of urgency and certainty and a vision of the world defined in absolute terms. Although fundamentalists felt sure that the end was near, they believed that it was never too late for the individual, the nation or the world to be reborn. While modernist Protestants emphasize patience, humility, willingness to compromise and tolerance on a range of important issues, at least in terms of ideals if not always practices, fundamentalists believed that they were engaged in a zero-sum game of good versus evil.

They had no time or regard for incremental change, or for reasoning with those who differed with them, or for mediation or for gradual reform. They called for drastic and instantaneous solutions to the problems they saw around them. Jesus was coming soon to separate the sheep from the goats, and they wanted to be ready.

The political positions embraced by early fundamentalists, all of which flowed logically from their apocalyptic understanding of the biblical text, hardened over time. They called for limited government and battled anything that seemed to threaten Christians’ rights and freedoms. They fretted about changes in the culture, and especially those that upended what they saw as traditional gender roles. In foreign policy, they championed isolationism and, when they did want the United States to intervene around the world, they called on American leaders to act unilaterally. They also became some of the country’s most ardent and unapologetic Zionists.

In 1947, William Bell Riley lay on his deathbed. An aspiring young evangelist sat at his side. The veteran fundamentalist told the rookie preacher that God had destined him to lead the fundamentalist movement forward, to take the mantle from Riley. The young evangelist was Billy Graham.

In the years after World War II, Graham and his fundamentalist allies began calling themselves “evangelicals.” But little else changed. They continued to emphasize the imminent second coming of Christ, and they avidly aligned biblical prophecy with current events. They maintained a staunch antigovernment ideology and consistently fought the efforts of American leaders to cede any power to international organizations. They became some of Israel’s most faithful American allies and defended their vision of gender and family.

When Riley announced in 1919 that the fundamentalist movement was going to be bigger than the Protestant Reformation, he was wrong. Yet there can be no doubt that the work of fundamentalists and their evangelical successors produced one of the most significant and powerful religious-political movements in American history. They have driven religion into the center of American politics and culture, where it is likely to stay for many decades to come.

Friday, May 24, 2019

3253. New Research Suggests that the Big Bang Occurred 12.5 Billion Years Ago

By Corey S. Powell, NBC News, May 18, 2019

A ground-based telescope's view of the Large Magellanic Cloud

Studies of star clusters in a neighboring galaxy (inset) add to the evidence that the universe is younger and faster-expanding than expected.Space Telescope Science Institute Office of Public Outreach / NASA, ESA, A. Reiss (STScI/JHU)
We've all lost track of time at one point or another, but astronomers really go all in. Recent studies show they may have overestimated the age of the universe by more than a billion years — a surprising realization that is forcing them to rethink key parts of the scientific story of how we got from the Big Bang to today.

The lost time is especially vexing because, in a universe full of mysteries, its age has been viewed as one of the few near-certainties. By 2013, the European Planck space telescope's detailed measurements of cosmic radiation seemed to have yielded the final answer: 13.8 billion years old. All that was left to do was to verify that number using independent observations of bright stars in other galaxies.

Then came an unexpected turn of events.

A few teams, including one led by Nobel laureate Adam Riess of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, set out to make those observations. Instead of confirming Planck's measurements, they started getting a distinctly different result.

"It was getting to the point where we say, 'Wait a second, we're not passing this test — we're failing the test!'" says Riess, co-author of a new paper about the research to be published in Astrophysical Journal.

He estimates that his results, taken at face value, indicate a universe that is only 12.5 billion to 13 billion years old.

At first, the common assumption was that Riess and the other galaxy-watchers had made a mistake. But as their observations continued to come in, the results didn't budge.

Reanalysis of the Planck data didn't show any problems, either.

If all the numbers are correct, then the problem must run deeper. It must lie in our interpretation of those numbers — that is, in our fundamental models of how the universe works. "The discrepancy suggests that there's something in the cosmological model that we're not understanding right," Riess says. What that something could be, nobody knows.

Discovery of the dawn of time

The current discrepancy traces its origin way back to 1929, when astronomer Edwin Hubble discovered that galaxies are fleeing from Earth in all directions. More shocking, Hubble found that the farther away the galaxies are, the faster they're moving apart. That pattern means they're all fleeing from each other as well. "The only way all of this can be true is if space is expanding," Riess says.

If the idea of an expanding universe seems bizarre to you, welcome to the club.
"It's still bizarre to me, too," Riess says. "But that's what all of the data show, and that's what our theory predicts." Even Hubble never fully accepted the implications of his own work.
An expanding universe implies that the universe has a definite age, because you can retrace the action back to a time when everything in the cosmos was crammed together in an extremely dense, hot state: what we call the Big Bang.

"This is another hard concept for people to get their heads around," University of Chicago cosmologist Wendy Freedman said, adding that the Big Bang didn't go off like a kind of bomb. "The Big Bang is an explosion of space, not into space," she said.

In other words, galaxies are not flying away from each other through space. Space itself is stretching between them, and it has been ever since the Big Bang. So it's meaningless to ask where the Big Bang occurred. It occurred everywhere. As Freedman puts it, "There is no center or edge to the explosion."

But in the expanding universe, there is a beginning of time — at least, time as we know it. 

By measuring the rate at which galaxies are moving apart, astronomers realized, they could figure out the moment when the cosmos blinked into existence. All they had to do is figure out how to get their galactic measurements exactly right.

Clocking the cosmos

Freedman has been working on that problem for more than three decades, far longer than she ever expected. "This is an incredible challenge," she says. "Imagine making measurements out to hundreds of millions of light years to 1-percent accuracy!"

Hubble himself flubbed the test. His original calculations implied a universe younger than Earth, because he had drastically underestimated the distances to other galaxies.

The difficulty of making direct observations of other galaxies is one of the reasons why scientists created the Planck space telescope. It was designed to detect radiation left over from the Big Bang. The pattern of that radiation indicates the exact physical state of the early universe, if you know how to decode it. In principle, then, the Planck readings should tell us everything we want to know about what the universe is made of, and how old it is.

Planck has been a resounding success, pinning hard numbers onto the soft riddles of the cosmos. It indicated that 26 percent of the universe consists of dark matter, invisible material that helps hold galaxies together. It also confirmed the surprise discovery that the universe is dominated by dark energy, an unknown force that permeates all of empty space. (The detection of dark energy is what earned Riess a shared 2011 Nobel Prize.)

The likely implication of these findings is that the universe will keep expanding forever, faster and faster, into an ever-deeper darkness. It's an uncomfortable thought, one that Riess would rather not dwell on: "The scale of time is so beyond that of humanity, I don't think of it in human terms."
Most satisfying, perhaps, Planck finally completed the job that Hubble began, determining how quickly the universe is expanding and how long it has been around. Or so it seemed.

Something big is missing

Fortunately, Freedman and Riess and their colleagues didn't give up on their alternate approach to determining the age of the universe. They kept improving their observations, and are now getting close to that ambitious target of 1 percent accuracy. Which brings us to the current dispute — what the scientists politely refer to as "the tension."

The latest galaxy studies indicate an expansion rate about 9 percent faster than the answer from Planck. That might not sound like much of a disagreement, but over cosmic history it adds up to that full billion years of lost time.

Given the stakes, everyone involved is checking and rechecking their results for possible sources of error. Increasingly, though, it looks like the problem lies not with the observations but with the theories of cosmology that underpin them. If those theories are wrong or incomplete, the interpretation of the Planck readings will be flawed, too.

"There's currently no consistent story that works for all our cosmological data," says Princeton University astrophysicist Jo Dunkley, who has extensively analyzed the Planck results. "That means there is fascinating work to be done, to see if there is something out there that can explain all of it."

The "tension" reminds scientists of just how much they still don't understand about the underlying laws of nature. Dunkley points to the ghostly particles known as neutrinos, which are extremely abundant throughout space. "We measure neutrinos in the lab and put them in our cosmological model assuming that they are behaving just as we expect them to, but we simply don't know if that's true," she says. "I wouldn't find it surprising if dark matter turned out to be more complicated than we think, too."

Then there's the enigma of dark energy. "We have no good ideas for what it is. Perhaps there are also elements completely missing from the model side, still to be discovered," Freedman says. Theorists have no shortage of ideas: new types of dark energy, new fields, new particles.
Figuring out which explanation is correct — if any — will require another vast improvement in how we measure what the universe is actually doing. Freedman isn't coy about the magnitude of our ignorance: "The question is, what do we have yet to learn? I'd love to come back in a hundred or a thousand years and find out!"