Ecstasy Studied to Treat PTSD

Originally appearing here. Dubbed the “hug drug” and “X” by its users, the illegal drug ecstasy is being researched as a possible treatment for sufferers of serious stress disorders. But a lot more research is needed before ecstasy-assisted psychotherapy would ever be made legal in the U.S., says Gary Gudelsky, a University of Cincinnati professor who has spent 25 years studying side effects of the drug on the brain. “It’s got a lot of baggage to overcome,” says Gudelsky, who teaches at UC’s James L. Winkle College of Pharmacy. Known clinically as MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxy-methylamphetamine), the drug’s effectiveness is the focus of a privately funded study involving at least 12 U.S. military veterans, police officers and firefighters with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The study is being conducted in conjunction with the Medical University of South Carolina and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a Santa Cruz, Calif.-based non-profit that raises money for research aimed at developing psychedelics and marijuana into prescription medicines. Backers of the research say MDMA’s ability to induce feelings of euphoria and affection allow users to become comfortable discussing difficult or traumatic emotions and memories. That’s been proved in some preliminary studies in the U.S. and abroad, Gudelsky says. A popular rave-party drug in late 1980s and 1990s, MDMA was banned from production in the U.S in 1986 and listed as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act. It shares that category with other drugs that include heroin and have been deemed by the government to have no medical use and have a high potential for abuse. In recent years, however, the Food and Drug Administration has approved MDMA’s production for research in some U.S. labs. Participants in the MAPS study, under way now, receive weekly non-drug related psychotherapy sessions, along with three day-long therapy sessions involving varying levels of MDMA, according to MAPS. The findings will be compared with a previous study that examined the use of MDMA with women survivors of sexual abuse and assault. Updates on the study are being posted on MAPS website, Officials with the organization could not be reached for comment. MDMA is similar to methamphetamine in it’s chemical makeup, but it has very different psychological and physiological affects in its users, said Gudelsky. “If I gave 50 people MDMA, I’d have 50 new best friends, not because they are tripping, but because they would just feel more connected,” he said. That’s because, in low doses, the drug increases serotonin levels in the brain which impacts oxytocin and prolactin hormones that are associated with trust and bonding. MDMA is not highly addictive, like heroin or meth, and Gudelsky said most deaths associated with it have been the result of users who have mixed it with other illegal drugs, or drug dealers who have mixed it with other compounds. Much of Gudelsky’s research has been on the drug’s impact on serotonin during and after prolonged periods of use. His research well documents the damage that is done in the brain by heavy MDMA abusers, including memory impairments and a depletion of serotonin levels. Though he’s not involved in the MDMA study on PTSD, Gudelsky says he’s watching the project closely. “I think there is some very interesting dialogue that’s going to come down the pipe in terms of risks and benefits of its use, especially as we have a large number of people coming back to the U.S. with PTSD,” he said. “I think it’s politically, a difficult (treatment) for the federal government to recommend, considering it has spent years trying to paint this drug as something that can blow holes in your brain.” As many as 20 percent, or 1 in five of the 2.5 million soldiers deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan could one day suffer from PTSD, according to estimates from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Just this month, Cincinnati’s Veteran Affairs Hospital in Corryville was tapped to play a key role in $9 million study for PTSD, said Kathleen Chard, an expert on the disorder at UC who is one of three investigators in the research. 500 veterans, soldiers in study The study will involve up to 500 military veterans and active duty soldiers and include 17 sites across the country, says Chard, who is director of the hospital’s PTSD division, based at the VA Medical Center facility in Fort Thomas. The local hospital, she said, offers the only in-patient programs in the U.S. for military members suffering from PTSD, serving around 20 individuals at a time. “Our outpatient numbers are booming right now,” she added. “We receive about 100 referrals a month.” Chard’s study, which should take about 31/2 years to complete, will compare two treatments for PTSD – cognitive processing therapy (CPT) and prolonged exposure (PE). Both treatments are most commonly used now in combination with antidepressants and sleep aids to treat PTSD. CPT focuses on the patient’s thoughts and feelings, Chard says, with an emphasis on how traumatic experiences changed the patient’s thoughts and beliefs. PE, on the other hand, focuses on allowing the patient to work through painful memories by re-experiencing the traumatic event or events in a safe environment. Chard said the goal of the study is to better understand which approach works better in certain circumstances. She says she’s aware of the studies involving MDMA, but says the VA is sticking with “evidence-based treatments” such as those involved in her studies. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to make our veterans guinea pigs,” she said. “We know that ecstasy cannot be used long term. The jury is still out on whether, short term, there is enough benefit to be helpful enough with PTSD.” The Cincinnati Enquirer reports on the current state of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) treatments in response to a new $9 million study of PTSD to be conducted in Cincinnati. The article highlights MAPS’ research efforts, detailing how treating PTSD with MDMA-assisted psychotherapy can help people overcome treatment resistant PTSD.