July 18th, 2010
07:01 PM ET
The drug MDMA—better known by its street name, Ecstasy—may be illegal, but a new study suggests that it’s also a promising treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.
The study, which appears in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, included 20 people with PTSD stemming from traumas such as sexual assault and combat stress. On two separate occasions, 12 of the people took a dose of 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 received additional therapy sessions that did not involve the drug.)
Two months later, 10 of the 12 people who took MDMA had improved to the point where they no longer met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, and three participants whose condition had prevented them from holding down a job were able to return to work.
By contrast, just two of the eight people in the placebo group experienced a substantial improvement in their symptoms.
MDMA is believed to raise levels of the feel-good brain chemical serotonin and the so-called "bonding hormone," oxytocin. The resulting sense of euphoria and emotional warmth seems to help patients connect with their therapists, says Michael Mithoefer, M.D., the lead author of the study and a Mount Pleasant, South Carolina-based psychiatrist who specializes in PTSD.
"A lot of the time, people have quite painful and challenging experiences revisiting the trauma, and [MDMA] can help them do it without being overwhelmed or numbed out," he says.
Don't try this experiment at home. Ecstasy use can cause depression, severe anxiety, and potential cognitive problems, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. And when purchased on the street it can be contaminated.
Conducting a study with an illegal drug is a complex process. This was the first clinical trial to explore the therapeutic potential of MDMA since the drug was outlawed in 1985, and the researchers required the permission of 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 says.
The study was funded by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a California-based nonprofit organization that also sponsors research on medical marijuana and psychedelic drugs such as LSD and psilocybin.
The use of MDMA in psychotherapy has been studied for decades, but research in the U.S. all but ground to a halt after the drug became illegal.
Mithoefer and his team are now gearing up for a similar study involving combat veterans, which is scheduled to begin later this year.
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