MDMA, better known by its street name, Ecstasy, is illegal but a new study suggests that it is also a promising treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The study, published in the Journal of Pscyhopharmacology, included 20 patients with PTSD from traumas such as sexual assault and combat stress, reports Amanda Gardner at CNN.
On two separate occasions, 12 of the people took MDMA and then spoke for several hours with a pair of trained therapists. The others took a placebo but received the same therapy. All of the participants got additional therapy sessions that did not involve the drug.
Ten of the 12 people who took MDMA had, two months later, improved so much they no longer met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD. Three of the participants whose condition had prevented them from keeping a job were even able to return to work.
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Just two of the eight people in the placebo group experienced a substantial improvement in their symptoms.
How does MDMA do this? It is believed to raise levels of the feel-good brain chemical serotonin, along with the “bonding hormone,” oxytocin (naturally experienced at high levels by new mothers or couples in love).
The resulting sense of euphoria and emotional warmth seems to help patients emotionally connect with their therapists, according to Michael Mithoefer, M.D., lead author of the study and a Mount Pleasant, South Carolina-based psychiatrist specializing in the treatment of PTSD.
“A lot of the time, people can have quite painful and challenging experiences revisiting the trauma, and [MDMA] can help them do it without being overwhelmed or numbed out,” Dr. Mithoefer said.
This was the first clinical trial to explore the therapeutic potential of MDMA since the drug was outlawed in 1985. Doing so required that the researchers obtain permission from the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
“It took quite a bit of time to get approval,” Mithoefer said.
Funding the study was the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a nonprofit organization based in California that also sponsors research on medical marijuana and psychedelic drugs such as LSD and psilocybin.
The use of MDMA in psychotherapy had been studied for decades — and like LSD, showed great promise — but also like LSD, research ground to a halt in the United States after the drug became illegal.
Dr. Mithoefer and his team are now preparing for a similar study involving combat veterans with PTSD. The study is scheduled to begin later this year.