MDMA Assisted Talk Therapy for PTSD?

Could there be a therapeutic role for the psychedelic drug known as ecstasy or molly on the street? The answer may be yes.

Recent research into the use of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) as a medical treatment suggests that carefully monitored use of the drug in a hospital or therapeutic setting could profoundly affect patients suffering from PTSD.

Post-traumatic stress disorder affects millions of people each year and is historically difficult to treat. Psychedelics were undergoing study for their use in treating depression, anxiety, and addictions between 1950 and 1967, and researchers saw signs of success. But the drugs were then declared illegal in the United States and other countries beginning in 1971, and these studies became more difficult.

It seems the attitudes towards these substances are changing. There has been a resurgence in interest in the study of LSD, psilocybin, and MDMA over the past 20 years, and laws surrounding the use of these drugs in medical settings are starting to loosen. In fact, MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD could be approved by the FDA as early as 2023.

The study, which was presented at a meeting of the American Chemical Society this week, enrolled 90 people with severe PTSD. Some participants received the drug, and others a placebo. Participants attended an 8-hour therapy session after taking either the MDMA or placebo. This was repeated twice with one month between the dosed sessions, and weekly unmedicated therapy sessions were included.

The findings:

  • About two-thirds of people who received MDMA-assisted therapy no longer met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD two months after their final session.
  • One-third of the placebo plus therapy group also no longer met the criteria for PTSD.
  • Side effects of MDMA were minimal, and there were no signs of addiction.
  • The treatment appeared to be effective in people usually considered treatment-resistant such as those with alcohol or drug use disorders.

The takeaway: More research is now being done to see how long these effects last. In some patients with less severe PTSD, the positive results were seen for years after. Those with more severe cases may not have the same lasting success. Of course, the criticism and concerns rest primarily on the more significant problems of abuse that could arise with the use of these drugs. The study’s principal investigator stressed that self-medication should never be an option. “If MDMA is decriminalized, that doesn’t mean it’s safe,” says Jennifer Mitchell, Ph.D. “It can be a very powerful tool, but it needs to have the right dose in the right context with the right support system.” If MDMA-assisted therapy does go on to be approved, the drug would only be administered in person in a hospital or treatment setting under the close supervision of a doctor.

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