Ecstasy Use in Combatting Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

MDMA, commonly known as ecstasy or molly, was used in a recent study to treat patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Published in The Lancet Psychiatry, this study puts the party drug in a surprisingly positive light for psychotherapy treatments.

The researchers found that after just two sessions of psychotherapy with MDMA, a majority of the 26 patients with severe PTSD involved in the study experienced drastic mental health improvement. The decrease in symptoms was so profound that 68% of the participants no longer met the inclusion criteria for having PTSD.

Participants were either given 30, 75, or 100-125 mg of MDMA, then underwent two eight-hour psychotherapy sessions. After taking the drug, patients would lie on a couch in a room filled with candles, flowers, and calming music. Assessing patients one year after the last session, the researchers found that the 75 and 125 mg groups displayed significantly greater decreases in severity of PTSD symptoms.

“I was finally able to process all the dark stuff that happened.”

Patients report that the treatment brought about a cleansing sensation, allowing them to view their traumas from a new perspective. Nicholas Blackston, a Marine gunman who served in Iraq, claims that he “was finally able to process all the dark stuff that happened,” after his MDMA treatment. “I was able to forgive myself. It was like a clean sweep.”

Nigel McCourry, a Marine veteran who was contemplating suicide prior to treatment, reports a similar experience. His memories of accidentally gunning down two young girls and being near deadly explosions had been destroying his life, but he claims the treatment turned this all around. “I realized I had viewed myself as a monster, and I was able to start to have some compassion for myself. It was a turning point, and for the next year I continued to get better.”

Previous small-scale studies of MDMA have led to the FDA giving the drug breakthrough therapy status, potentially facilitating treatment approval. The FDA defines a breakthrough therapy as a drug:

  • intended alone or in combination with one or more other drugs to treat a serious or life threatening disease or condition and
  • preliminary clinical evidence indicates that the drug may demonstrate substantial improvement over existing therapies on one or more clinically significant endpoints, such as substantial treatment effects observed early in clinical development.

Breakthrough therapy designation has helped the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), the small nonprofit behind this study, to get MDMA approved for phase 3 trials this summer by the FDA. These trials are expected to cost $27 million.

There is currently a lack of effective treatment for PTSD, with roughly one in three veterans with PTSD being effectively treated. In addition to lack of efficacy, the current medications prescribed for the disorder can yield undesirable side effects as well. MDMA therapy was found to not only be more effective than traditional treatment in this study, but to produce only minor side effects as well. If the findings from this study are replicated in large-scale trials and patient safety is ensured, MDMA could be approved for legal use by 2021.

Sources: The Lancet, NY Times