psychiatry

Unraveling

By Kim Krieger | Illustrations by Yesenia Carrero

illustration; two silhouettes, one with a scribble pattern overlayed over top. looks to scribbled circular dot between them

PTSD can undo a sufferer’s life. MDMA may help patients untangle their trauma and find their way back to mental health.


When lasting trauma is caused by callous acts of violence, the key to recovery can be making meaning from meaninglessness.

This year UConn Health will host a phase 3 FDA trial that tests whether the drug MDMA, known on the street as ecstasy or molly, is a safe and effective treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. The disorder is difficult to treat, and many people have a tough time handling the treatment. MDMA not only might make therapy more tolerable but it also may help open a window for patients into their own mind. The insight allows them to process a shattering, horrific event into something that makes them stronger.

The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, as when a person is traumatized in some way and then continues to reexperience the trauma through flashbacks, nightmares, or unwanted intrusive memories. The person with PTSD avoids people or places associated with the trauma; becomes overly negative in thoughts and speech about themselves and other people; and has heightened arousal that can include a hair-trigger startle reflex, inability to sleep, hypervigilance, irritability, and aggression. At its worst, people are unable to cope with everyday life and may even become suicidal.

Often the source of the trauma is a shocking event involving interpersonal violence, such as rape, combat, or sexual abuse. Racial discrimination and harassment, particularly when it is shocking or pervasive, can also cause PTSD. UConn psychologist Monnica Williams began focusing on race-based trauma when she was at the University of Pennsylvania and had a very successful, high-achieving, black client come in with PTSD stemming from racial discrimination she’d suffered on the job. Williams was taken aback and began studying the link between racism and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Deconstructing the Trauma

But no matter what type of trauma causes the PTSD, the most effective treatment for it is exposure-based therapy, such as “prolonged exposure.” Essentially, the therapist has the patient discuss the traumatic event in excruciating detail, over and over again, until it ceases to cause overwhelming fear and anxiety.

Prolonged exposure works — indeed, it has the most evidence behind it. But it’s terribly difficult for the patients, who often get visibly upset during sessions, and many quit therapy because the experience is too much like the original trauma.

The MDMA-assisted therapy session was utterly without the distress, tension, and fear PTSD patients typically show during prolonged exposure treatment.

MDMA-assisted psychotherapy could be one way to change that. The drug stimulates the release of neurotransmitters that promote a feeling of trust and well-being and might also help the brain rewire itself. But when Williams first heard of it, she was skeptical.

“It sounded weird, like junk science, and I didn’t want to be part of that,” she says. But she agreed to take a look at an article in Psychopharmacology. She was fascinated to see that researchers had used MDMA as an adjunct to psychotherapy for PTSD and had gotten really good results. She was pleasantly surprised again when she first watched a video of an MDMA-assisted therapy session.

“People were sitting in a chair, relaxed. They’re processing it on their own, and would sometimes share new insights with the therapist,” Williams says. It was utterly unlike the distress, tension, and fear PTSD patients typically show during prolonged exposure. “They would say things like, ‘Wow. Now I understand the trauma didn’t happen to me because I’m a bad person — I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.’ And we’re like, ‘Yes! Yes! They finally get it!’” she recalls. The MDMA helps them look at the big picture, to understand that the violence against them didn’t mean what they thought it had.

‘It’s got to come out’

It takes a while for psychoactive drugs to work their way through the FDA approval process. MAPS has been testing MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD for more than a decade. Many of the early participants experienced lasting improvement.

Rachel Hope, who experienced a cascade of abusive events as a child that left her with severe PTSD, “did 20 years of psychotherapy” prior to participating in an MDMA-assisted therapy session. “When I got into the outer limits of the really hardcore stuff, I’d start to destabilize and get sicker … I’d start vomiting or have to leave the room. I knew that I had to tell it — the story has a soul of its own. It’s got to be seen, got to be known. It’s got to come out. But I couldn’t get it out,” she says.

Hope had had good therapists and managed to run a real estate development company, but eventually the PTSD got so bad she couldn’t leave the house. Finally her personal assistant threatened to quit if she didn’t go back into therapy. And that’s how she came to participate in an MDMA-assisted psychotherapy trial in 2005. It was a revelation.

“The MDMA was a terrific antianxiety medicine,” she says; it didn’t make her fuzzy-headed like most antianxiety meds had. “It amplified access to memories and, really, I had access to everything, and I wasn’t terrified. I could actually tell someone, for the first time in my life, what had happened to me. I had so much access to my own mind.” She describes it as the perfect tool to help work through the trauma. “I was rebooting my mind under my own directive,” Hope says.

“They would say things like, ‘Wow. Now I understand the trauma didn’t happen to me because I’m a bad person — I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.’ And we’re like, ‘Yes! Yes! They finally get it!’”

Williams agrees that the MDMA seems to help patients rapidly make connections and breakthroughs in a single therapy session. Typically, a patient in psychotherapy might have just one such realization every few months.

The participants in the phase 3 trial at UConn Health will have a total of 20 therapy sessions, three of which will include MDMA. Each session will have two therapists present. The MDMA-assisted sessions will be six to eight hours long, after which the participant will stay overnight in the hospital to rest, supervised by a night attendant. And as part of the effort to involve participants from communities of color, all but one of the therapists at UConn Health identifies as an ethnic, racial, and/or sexual minority.

“In Singapore, I was part of the majority, but I was curious how it felt to be Malay, Indian, or one of the other minorities,” says Terence Ching, a clinical psychology doctoral student involved in the study. Ching has also lived in Australia, New Zealand, and Kentucky, where he was not part of the majority ethnic group. “That led me to critically introspect my place in society as someone with many different identities. Having that multifaceted perspective allows me to experience a lot of empathy for people from marginalized groups in the U.S.,” Ching says.

To get a better understanding of what the MDMA-assisted psychotherapy would be like for study participants, Ching participated in a session himself as part of his training.

“It felt like a lot of insights happening constantly,” Ching says. “It’s been a year since the session, and every now and then I have a moment where I remember an insight from it, and/or have another one. It’s a wonderful thing.” Ching hopes that the participants benefit from their MDMA-assisted psychotherapy in the same way he did.

“For someone who has experienced trauma, MDMA-assisted psychotherapy might help them be able to make meaning of it. I really believe in this work,” Ching says.

For Anxiety, Single Intervention Is Not Enough

illustration on the concept of anxiety. Features a male with hands held to forhead in slumped possition. Mans face is scribbled.


No matter which treatment they get, only 20 percent of young people diagnosed with anxiety will stay well over the long term, UConn Health researchers report in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

“When you see so few kids stay non-symptomatic after receiving the best treatments we have, that’s discouraging,” says UConn Health psychologist Golda Ginsburg. She suggests that regular mental health checkups may be a better way to treat anxiety than the current model.

The study followed 319 young people aged 10 to 25 who had been diagnosed with separation, social, or general anxiety disorders at sites in California, North Carolina, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.
They received evidence-based treatment with either sertraline (the generic form of Zoloft) or cognitive behavioral therapy or a combination of the two and then had follow-ups with the researchers every year for four years.

The follow-ups assessed anxiety levels but did not provide treatment. Other studies have done a single follow-up after one, two, five, or 10 years, but those were essentially snapshots in time. This is the first study to reassess youth treated for anxiety every year for four years.

We need a different model for mental health, one that includes regular checkups.

The sequential follow-ups meant that the researchers could identify people who relapsed, recovered, and relapsed again as well as people who stayed anxious and people who stayed well. They found that 20 percent of patients got well after treatment and stayed well, rating low on anxiety at each follow-up. But about half the patients relapsed at least once, and 30 percent were chronically anxious, meeting the diagnostic criteria for an anxiety disorder at every follow-up. Females were more likely to be chronically ill than males. Other predictors of chronic illness were experiencing more negative life events, having poor family communication, and having a diagnosis of social phobia.

On the bright side, the study found that young people who responded to treatment were more likely to stay well. The study also found no difference in long-term outcomes between treatment types. This means that if there is no cognitive behavioral therapist nearby, treatment with medication is just as likely to be effective.

The study also found that kids did better if their families were supportive and had positive communication styles. Parents should talk to their child and ask the therapist questions: Why do they suggest this treatment? (It should be supported by evidence.) Have they been trained in cognitive behavioral therapy? How can we reinforce what was learned in therapy this week?

But parents should also be aware that a single intervention may not be enough.

“If we can get them well, how do we keep them well?” says Ginsburg. “We need a different model for mental health, one that includes regular checkups.”

Lab Notes – Spring 2018

Early Dependency Leads to Lower Achievement

cannabis

A new study has found that young adults who are dependent on marijuana and alcohol are less likely to achieve adult life goals. UConn Health scientists from the psychiatry department analyzed data from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s Collaborative Study on the Genetics of Alcoholism (COGA) and found that these substance-dependent young adults go on to have lower levels of education, decreased rates of full-time employment, less marriage potential, and less social economic potential. The study, presented at the American Public Health Association 2017 Annual Meeting & Expo, also found that marijuana and alcohol dependency may have a more severe effect on young men, affecting them in all areas of measure versus women, who were less likely to obtain a college degree and had lower economic potential, but were equally likely to get married or obtain full-time employment.


Biodegradable Sensor Monitors Pressure, Disappears

hand holding tiny biodegradable sensor

A patent is pending for a biodegradable pressure sensor developed by UConn engineers that could help doctors monitor chronic lung disease, swelling of the brain, and other medical conditions, before dissolving harmlessly in a patient’s body. The small, flexible sensor is made of medically safe materials already approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use in surgical sutures, bone grafts, and medical implants. It is designed to replace existing implantable pressure sensors that have potentially toxic components and require an additional invasive procedure to remove, extending patients’ recovery time and increasing the risk of infection. The research was funded by a National Institutes of Health grant and funds from UConn’s Academic Plan and is featured online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


DNA Becomes Harder to Access as We Age

A comparison between the immune cells of seniors ages 65 and over and those of adults between the ages of 22 and 40 has revealed that DNA changes with age, impacting how the immune system renews itself. In the sample from the aging population, chromosomes appeared more tightly coiled, making it difficult for cells to access the DNA that might be critical in defending our bodies against diseases, including flu and some cancers. In contrast, the regions of chromosome coding for genes associated with cell death and inflammation appeared to be more open in the elderly than in the young. The study, conducted by a team from UConn Health and the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine, appeared in the Journal of Experimental Medicine.

DNA strand


Portable Microscope a Game Changer in the Field

portable microscope

UConn optical engineers have developed a portable holographic microscope that enables medical professionals to identify diseased cells and other biological specimens in the field in just minutes. The detailed holograms generated by the microscope can be used by medical workers attempting to identify malaria patients in remote areas of Africa and Asia, where the disease is endemic. It also can be used in hospitals and other clinical settings for rapid analysis of cell morphology and cell physiology associated with cancer, hepatitis, HIV, sickle cell disease, heart disease, and other illnesses. The device was recently featured in a paper published by Applied Optics.

The Doctors Are In – Spring 2016

UConn Health welcomes the following new physicians:


Seth Brown, MD

Specialties: Ear, Nose, and Throat/Otolaryngology, Otolaryngology Surgery
Location: Farmington


Saira Cherian, DO

Specialties: Internal Medicine, Primary Care
Locations: Farmington


Alexis Cordiano, MD

Specialty: Emergency Medicine
Location: Farmington


Montgomery Douglas, MD

UConn School of Medicine Chair
of Family Medicine

Specialty: Family Medicine
Location: Farmington


Jeffrey Indes, MD

Chief of the Division of Vascular and Endovascular Surgery

Specialty: Vascular Surgery
Location: Farmington


Leah Kaye, MD

Specialty: Obstetrics and Gynecology
Location: Farmington


Glenn Konopaske, MD

Specialty: Psychiatry
Location: Farmington


Guoyang Luo, MD

Specialties: Obstetrics and Gynecology, Maternal-Fetal Medicine
Location: Farmington


Jose Montes-Rivera, MD

Specialties: Neurology, Epilepsy
Location: Farmington


Rafael Pacheco, MD

Specialty: Radiology
Location: Farmington


Mario Perez, MD, MPH

Specialties: Critical Care, Internal Medicine, Pulmonary Medicine
Location: Farmington


Edward Perry, MD

Specialty: Hematology/Oncology
Location: Farmington


Surita Rao, MD

Specialties: Addiction Psychiatry, Psychiatry
Location: Farmington


Belachew Tessema, MD

Specialties: Ear, Nose, and Throat/Otolaryngology, Otolaryngology Surgery
Location: Farmington


Cristina Sánchez-Torres, MD

Specialties: Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Psychiatry
Locations: Farmington, West Hartford


Brian Schweinsburg, Ph.D.

Specialties: Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Psychology
Locations: Farmington, West Hartford


Mona Shahriari, MD

Specialties: Dermatology, Pediatric Dermatology
Locations: Canton, Farmington


Kipp Van Meter, DO

Specialties: Family Medicine, Internal Medicine, Primary Care
Location: Canton

The Doctors Are In – Winter 2015

UConn Health welcomes the following new physicians:


Ridhi Bansal, MD

Specialties: Internal Medicine, Primary Care
Location: Canton


Philip M. Blumenshine, MD, MAS., M.Sc.

Psychiatry Emergency Department Medical Director

Specialty: Psychiatry
Locations: Farmington


Ethan I. Bortniker, MD

Specialty: Colon Cancer Prevention, Gastroenterology
Location: Farmington


Tilahun Gemtessa, MD, M.Sc.

Specialty: Infectious Diseases
Location: Farmington


Matthew Imperioli, MD

Specialty: Neurology
Location: Farmington


Neha Jain, MD

Specialty: Psychiatry, Geriatric Psychiatry
Location: Farmington


David Karimeddini, MD

Specialty: Radiology
Location: Farmington


Hsung Lin, DMD

Specialty: Family Dentistry
Location: Storrs Center


Janice Oliveri, MD

Specialty: Internal Medicine
Location: Farmington


Houman Rezaizadeh, MD

Specialty: Gastroenterology
Location: Farmington


Bernardo Rodrigues, MD

Speciaty: Neurology
Location: Farmington


Lenora S. Williams, MD

Specialty: Obstetrics and Gynecology, Women’s Health
Location: Storrs Center


Visit UConn Health’s online physician directory for information about all our specialists.