Modern Spirit is Working to Bridge Psychedelic Psychotherapy and Epigenetics

Article by Joe Tafur MD, Nov 16, 2019

Many of us have encountered remarkable healing with psychedelic psychotherapy and now, scientific research is bringing this work into the public eye. In the United States, the MAPS investigation into MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD is currently on a fast track with the FDA, and physician prescribed psychedelic psychotherapy may just be a year or two away. Thus far, the MDMA-assisted psychotherapy trial’s results are very impressive. After living with treatment-resistant PTSD for nearly two decades, at one-year follow-up, nearly 70 % of those treated no longer meet criteria for PTSD. Longer term follow-up data is also looking promising. A significant shift seems to have been realized in many of the study participants, a healing, if you will.

I have spent years working in the related field of curanderismo, working with Ayahuasca and master plants in the Peruvian Amazon. I have written about my experiences with sacred ceremony in my book The Fellowship of the River: A Medical Doctor’s Exploration into Traditional Amazonian Plant Medicine. One of the first cases I present in the book is that of my friend Russ, as his story really opened my eyes to the power of profound emotional and spiritual healing. Russ is a Vietnam Veteran who had been treated for PTSD at the VA for decades. He had been through a number of medications and therapies but was not satisfied with his progress. In 2009, he joined me in the Amazon and went through Ayahuasca ceremony within the context of a traditional Amazonian Shipibo healing diet. In just ten days, he made more progress than he had made in a long time. His experience in Peru was mystical and at times, out of this world. Perhaps most importantly, though, it was emotionally significant. Through a spiritual process in Peru, Russ made amends with his deceased mother and found forgiveness within himself for the way he had behaved as a father, for the ways in which PTSD had affected his family. After his time in the jungle, Russ no longer needed the psychiatric medication he had weaned himself off of in preparation for his traditional treatment. He found that he could manage better with some occasional medical marijuana. His blood pressure improved and so did his blood sugar.

After the trip, Russ was ready to re-engage in therapy in a more meaningful way. Before, he had been too closed. He subsequently entered an integrative PTSD program at the VA. His healing journey continues, and he shares this healing process with younger vets struggling upon their return to American life.

Approaches that access the spiritual dimension, the mystical dimension, offer an incredible opportunity for emotional healing. A spiritual context can open the mind beyond judgement, and, when in integrity, offer a safe place for vulnerability. This is the sacred space healers refine and hold. This is the space where seekers find room to move through unresolved trauma.

Love is so important in this process, despite its lack of popularity in academic press. Its role in MDMA-assisted psychotherapy is a bit difficult to ignore. Love, one might say, is the acceptance of all things as they are without reservation. Forgiveness is heartfelt acceptance. Forgiveness starts in the mind but is only completed in the heart. A spiritual context allows for this kind of deep emotional processing.

I went through the MAPS MDMA Psychotherapy training earlier this year and was struck by the session videos, by the space held by the therapists, by their grace. For me, these therapists appear to practice within a spiritual context. In the spirit of love, psychedelic psychotherapists facilitate profound emotional experiences giving rise to shifts in mental health.

I have become fascinated by the concept of emotional biology. We have learned a great deal about emotional biology, about how fear and rage affect our physiology, how emotional attachment affects our immune function, and how severe emotional trauma affects, for example, our fight-or-flight response. We know that severe emotional trauma can lead to PTSD, a disorder which impacts psychology, autonomic nervous system function, hormonal function and immune function.

Science is now exploring where such emotional trauma is stored in the body. A growing body of evidence indicates that at the cellular level, the memory of trauma is stored in the “epigenetics”. Basically, epigenetics refers to the biochemical machinery that sits “upon” the genes. Emotional biology is altered by experiences that impact epigenetics.

Epigenetics refers to both the biochemistry and to the study of the processes that regulate the way our genes are expressed in response to the environment. Stressful experiences can affect the way our genes are expressed. Scientific research is revealing that traumatic experiences can be associated with epigenetic changes, including traumatic experiences from war and childhood. These epigenetic imprints can become stabilized and likely play a role in a number of chronic diseases (for example, treatment resistant PTSD).

We are now learning that therapeutic experiences can also alter our epigenetics, processes like psychotherapy and meditative practice. A shift at the epigenetic level would help to explain the dramatic shifts observed in participants in the MAPS MDMA-assisted Psychotherapy Trial. There is reason to believe that psychedelic psychotherapy has the potential to facilitate stable changes in our emotional biology, in the epigenetics.

At this point, this is just speculation, but we now have the opportunity to investigate this very interesting possibility. The Modern Spirit research team, in collaboration with MAPS investigators and led by Dr. Rael Cahn at the USC Dept. of Psychiatry, is now collecting saliva samples on study participants in the MAPS MDMA-assisted Psychotherapy Trial. These samples will be analyzed in the laboratory. We will investigate whether or not epigenetic changes are involved in the therapeutic benefit of psychedelic psychotherapy.

I am hoping that we will learn something more about where spiritual and emotional healing touch the flesh, where the rubber hits the road. Modern Spirit, our nonprofit dedicated to demonstrating the value of spiritual healing in modern healthcare, has raised enough funds to complete the first year of the study. We are now raising further funds to realize the more costly portion of the work, the laboratory analysis.

>>> Please help support the Modern Spirit Epigenetics Project (MSEP). You can make your tax-deductible donation through our website modernspirit.org, there you can also learn more about our team and our mission.

Recent episodes of the Modern Spirit Podcast have explored the topic of emotional biology with leaders in the field. Please spread the word about this project to your clleagues and any interested parties. Hopefully, together, we can help solidify the place of psychedelic psychotherapy in the biomedical model and open the doors to whole new frontier in emotional biology.

Thank you for your consideration.