MDMA Therapy Gaining Popularity as PTSD Treatment

Structural model of MDMA (ecstasy)
Structural model of MDMA (ecstasy) on the blackboard. -- Getty Images

MDMA, the active ingredient in the recreational drug ecstasy, has shown great promise in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. In fact, it showed such promise during safety trials that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) designated MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD as a "breakthrough therapy," meaning the administration believes it may prove more beneficial than current treatments.

According to the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), MDMA is not the same as ecstasy, the illicit party drug that can contain a mixture of other chemicals at varying doses. Researchers say pure MDMA is safe for human consumption when taken in moderate, limited dosage.

In the second phase of research trials overseen by MAPS, 56 percent of participants no longer met criteria for a clinical PTSD diagnosis two months after participating in MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. One year later, 68 percent no longer showed symptoms of PTSD.

The Department of Veterans Affairs says PTSD affects 11 percent to 15 percent of veterans, depending on service era.

How to Get MDMA Treatment for PTSD

Currently, the VA doesn't offer MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for treating PTSD because it has not received FDA approval. MDMA has been illegal in the U.S. since 1985.

However, MAPS is seeking participants for the third phase of its treatment studies at 11 locations nationwide. These studies are highly controlled and limited in scope.

Studies are also being conducted by the governments of Canada and Israel.

What Exactly Is PTSD, and How Does MDMA Help?

PTSD is a mental health problem that some people develop after a traumatic event, such as war, disaster, sexual abuse, violence, terrorism or accidents. While many people have issues dealing with shocking events, it affects others negatively by impacting their daily life, resulting in relationship difficulties, problems finding a job, withdrawing from social activities and other symptoms, including depression and suicide risk.

Common treatments include medication and therapy, but these approaches don't work for some patients.

A frequent complaint among those who take medication to treat PTSD symptoms is that commonly prescribed drugs have a number of side effects, to include causing patients to feel "zombiefied," as if they are simply going through the motions of life. And they end up on many medications whose side-effects are unknown.

Only two medications, sertraline and paroxetine, are approved by the FDA for PSTD treatment. Other medications are often prescribed off-label to treat the condition.

MDMA was first synthesized in 1912 by German chemist Anton Kollisch. Its psychological effects have been studied since the 1950s. MDMA has been found to release serotonin and other neurotransmitters into the brain.This has the effect of increasing compassion, reducing defenses and fear of emotional injury, and enhancing communication and introspection, according to the Australian Alcohol and Drug Foundation.

MDMA also lessens hyperarousal and anxiety, common problems with PTSD sufferers, and it increases prosocial behaviors.

Used in combination with psychotherapy, MDMA can provide a patient a state of emotional security, allowing them to deal with traumatic memories without being overwhelmed by the negative thoughts accompanying those memories, according to Dr. Ben Sessa, whose book, Why Psychiatry Needs 3,4 Methylenedioxymethamphetamine: A Child Psychiatrist's Perspective, addresses the issue. This allows patients to deal with the effects of such memories without closing themselves off from their pasts, he wrote.

In MDMA-assisted therapy, the medication is administered in a controlled, clinical environment by a trained psychologist and is used as an adjunct to psychotherapy led by the provider.

Use of Drugs to Treat Psychological War Wounds Is Not New

Veterans with psychological wounds often turn to recreational chemicals to relieve stress.

Whether sitting around a bar or ingesting a drug of choice, medications can lower inhibitions and let buried memories come into the open, where they can be faced.

MDMA proponents say their research is an evolution of such self-medication, and the drug, administered in a controlled environment, can promote healing.

They also argue that it is less harmful than illicit drugs or alcohol, which carry the risk of addiction.

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