Let’s do a thought experiment.
What if I owned a company and paid all my employees to conduct an intervention study on a drug my company profits from? After completing the study, I pay a journal about ten thousand British pounds to publish the results. That’s not to say the study wouldn’t have been published anyway, but the payment allows for publication on “open access,” which is quicker and gets me immediate media buzz.
My drug intervention targets a longstanding human and societal problem—post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Of course, everyone with a soul wants to help people who have been physically or sexually assaulted or exposed to horrendous natural or military-related trauma. In the study, I compare the efficacy of my drug (plus counseling) with an inactive placebo (plus counseling). The results show that my drug is significantly more effective than an inactive placebo. The study is published. I get great media attention, with two New York Times (NYT) articles, one of which dubs my drug as one of the “hottest new therapeutics since Prozac.”
In real life, there’s hardly anything I love much more than a cracker-jack scientific study. And, in real life, my thought experiment is a process that’s typical for large pharmaceutical companies. My problem with these studies is that they use the cover of science to market a financial investment. Having financially motivated individuals conduct research, analyze the results, and report their implications spoils the science.
Over the past month or so, my thought experiment scenario has played out with psilocybin and MDMA (aka ecstasy) in the treatment of PTSD. The company—actually a non-profit—is the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). They funded an elaborate research project, titled, “MDMA-assisted therapy for severe PTSD: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled phase 3 study” through private donations. That may sound innocent, but Andrew Jacobs of the NYT described MAPS as, “a multimillion dollar research and advocacy empire that employs 130 neuroscientists, pharmacologists and regulatory specialists working to lay the groundwork for the coming psychedelics revolution.” Well, that’s not your average non-profit.
To be honest, I’m not terribly opposed to careful experimentation of psychedelics for treating PTSD. I suspect psychedelics will be no worse (and no better) than other pharmaceutic-produced drugs used to treat PTSD. What I do oppose, is dressing up marketing as science. Sadly, this pseudo-scientific approach has been used and perfected by pharmaceutical companies for decades. I’m familiar with promotional pieces impersonating science mostly from the literature on antidepressants for treating depression in youth. I can summarize the results of those studies simply: Mostly antidepressants don’t work for treating depression in youth. Although some individual children and adolescents will experience benefits from antidepressants, separating the true, medication-based benefits from placebo responses is virtually impossible.
My best guess from reading medication studies for 30 years (and recent psychedelic research) is that the psychedelic drug results will end up about the same as antidepressants for youth. Why? Because placebo.
Placebos can, and usually do, produce powerful therapeutic responses. I’ll describe the details in a later blog-post. For now, I just want to say that in the MDMA study, the researchers, despite reasonable efforts, were unable to keep study participants “blind” from whether they were taking MDMA vs. placebo. Unsurprisingly, 95.7% of patients in the MDMA group accurately guessed that they were in the MDMA group and 84.1% of patients in the placebo group accurately guessed they were only receiving inactive placebos. Essentially, the patients knew what they were getting, and consequently, attributing a positive therapeutic response to MDMA (rather than an MDMA-induced placebo effect) is speculation. . . not science.
In his NYT article (May 9, 2021), Jacobs wrote, “Psilocybin and MDMA are poised to be the hottest new therapeutics since Prozac.” Alternatively, he might have written, “Psilocybin and MDMA are damn good placebos.” Even further, he also could have written, “The best therapeutics for PTSD are and always will be exercise, culturally meaningful and socially-connected processes like sweat lodge therapy, being outdoors, group support, and counseling or psychotherapy with a trusted and competent practitioner.” Had he been interested in prevention, rather than treatment, he would have written, “The even better solution to PTSD involves investing in peace over war, preventing sexual assault, and addressing poverty.”
Unfortunately, my revision of what Jacobs wrote won’t make anyone much money . . . and so you won’t see it published anywhere now or ever—other than right here on this beautiful (and free) blog—which is why you should pass it on.