‘Ecstasy’ helped PTSD patients, small study says

‘Ecstasy’ helped PTSD patients, small study says

The Boston Globe

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney July 19, 2010 11:17 AM

Originally appeared at: http://www.boston.com/news/health/blog/2010/07/ecstasy_helped.html

People with chronic PTSD got better when they took the drug known as “ecstasy” as part of unusually lengthy psychotherapy sessions, a small study reports today.

Rick Doblin, executive director of the Belmont-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, and his colleagues tested the drug MDMA in 20 patients who had been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder for an average of 19 years. After random assignments, 12 of the people took MDMA and the other eight took placebos during two psychotherapy sessions that each lasted eight hours. They were tested for symptoms of PTSD before the study began, four days after each session, and again after two months. 

At the end of the trial, 10 of the 12 people in the MDMA group and two of the eight people on placebos improved enough that they no longer met the criteria for PTSD. There were more side effects during treatment — higher blood pressure, pulse and body temperature — in the MDMA group, but no serious medical problems. All the study subjects stayed overnight in an outpatient office where a nurse was available.

“What we found is astonishing,” Doblin said in an interview. “It is not the MDMA that helps PTSD, but the MDMA-assisted psychotherapy.”

MDMA works for PTSD patients by dampening the fear they have when confronting reminders of their trauma, the researchers believe. Just as partygoers feel euphoric when they take the drug, PTSD patients feel relaxed enough to discuss the events that have scarred them, Doblin said.

Doblin’s nonprofit organization sponsored the study and hopes to manufacture and market MDMA for prescription use, if it succeeds in larger trials and receives approval from the US Food and Drug Administration. The drug has been banned since 1985.

Dr. Roger Pitman, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital who has been doing PTSD research and treatment for more than 30 years, said the results are impressive and the approach deserves further investigation.

“I think it’s promising,” he said in an interview. He was not involved in the study.

Several more steps need to be taken, though, Pitman said. A larger trial should be conducted by an independent laboratory to see if the results can be replicated. As the researchers acknowledged, better placebos are needed to blind both study subjects and investigators. Almost all the study subjects correctly guessed whether they got MDMA or not, which may have influenced how they reported its benefits.

Several other pilot studies are under way among other types of patients, including military veterans, Doblin said. All but one of the participants in the study appearing today in theJournal of Psychopharmacology said their PTSD stemmed from sexual abuse or assault.
MDMA is also being studied by Dr. John Halpern at McLean Hospital in Belmont. He will test the drug in people with advanced cancer to see it if helps them cope with the pain and anxiety of dying.

“Some people might be inclined to just dismiss this because it’s wacky — it’s using a psychedelic drug and it reminds people of the old LSD days,” Pitman said. “I think that would be a mistake … because the investigators have produced compelling data for a first pilot study.”

This Boston-based publication reviews the results of the recently published MDMA research. Roger Pitman, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School discusses the possibility in using MDMA to help relieve people with terminal illnesses of anxiety and pain.