The active ingredient in the party drug Ecstasy, MDMA, may ease symptoms of chronic post-traumatic stress disorder when used with talk therapy. (Michele Limina / Keystone via AP)
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The active ingredient in the party drug Ecstasy, MDMA, may ease symptoms of chronic post-traumatic stress disorder when used with talk therapy, according to a small study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.
But researchers say years of additional study would be needed before MDMA — an illegal Class I controlled substance, like heroin and cocaine — could be cleared to treat PTSD.
In the study published online in November, 17 patients reported long-term relief of PTSD symptoms years after taking the drug as part of a clinical trial. The initial study showed patients who engaged in two or three daylong sessions of counseling while taking MDMA experienced reduced symptoms of PTSD.
Many had suffered from PTSD for nearly 20 years, researcher Dr. Michael Mithoefer said.
"There's a significant proportion of people who have not been adequately treated. … I'm hopeful this may provide another tool for us to use," Mithoefer said.
Most of the participants in Mithoefer's studies — 17 women and three men — were rape victims. Only one was a veteran.
Mithoefer and his wife and fellow researcher, Ann, have a second study underway that will involve 24 veterans, police officers and firefighters.
"The study will be of similar design but will be mostly for combat veterans and those with work-related trauma," Mithoefer said.
Ecstasy was declared illegal in 1985, but it remains a popular recreational drug for the feelings of euphoria and affection it induces.
Mithoefer thinks it works to facilitate psychotherapy because it "allows people to focus inward and revisit their trauma without being overwhelmed by feelings of anxiety. It helps patients connect to their emotions, which is a catalyst for psychotherapy."
For the research, MDMA is given in two doses over an eight-hour therapy session. About a month later, participants receive another assisted session. They also attend pre-sessions that don't use drug therapy, as well as follow-on counseling once a week.
In addition to Mithoefer's veterans study, research using cannabis and MDMA to treat PTSD is underway elsewhere, including in Israel, Switzerland and Canada.
The nonprofit group that sponsors the research, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, says the momentum is building.
"We have the power to bridge the traditional divides between government, mainstream public opinion and the psychedelic community," said Rick Doblin, director of MAPS. "If we do, we will be much, much closer to using MDMA to help heal people's emotional wounds."
The U.S. studies have received Food and Drug Administration approval and use MDMA manufactured by government-approved laboratories.
Mithoefer admits shortcomings in his own research, saying additional studies and large human trials will be needed before the therapy could be approved — an effort that could take six to 10 years.
MAPS and Mithoefer say they want to move deliberately to protect the research.
The effort to determine whether hallucinogens and stimulants have medicinal value is not new. In the 1970s, Dr. Timothy Leary promoted LSD as a conduit for psychotherapy, but his research derailed after the drug developed a large following interested in its recreational use.
"We are very aware of not trying to repeat that behavior with MDMA," Mithoefer said. "We want to keep it in the realm of well-controlled, well-executed science."