MDMA for PTSD: Studies Shows Benefit But Spark Controversy

Originally appearing here. New research supports the notion that the psychedelic drug MDMA or pure Ecstasy, in conjunction with psychotherapy, could provide treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The findings have also sparked some controversy. MDMA, or 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine was “studied last year for its role in helping relieve symptoms of PTSD. The newest finding, published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, is a follow-up of patients treated with MDMA up to 3 times. The participants had already received conventional treatment for PTSD that failed, which is often the case. Most of group continued to do well after three years. Two suffered a relapse and one failed to respond. Conventional treatment involves the use of anti-depressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Other approaches include cognitive behavioral therapy and psychodynamic psychotherapy. The original study showed the group treated with the unadulterated form of Ecstasy and psychotherapy, versus therapy alone, had longer relief of symptoms that can include nightmares, flashbacks and avoidance of situations that trigger memories of a traumatic event. Since funding for this type of research is difficult, the non-profit organization MAPS has made it one of their priorities. Their focus is on helping veterans. The research has spawned some controversy. According to the group, “MDMA is known for increasing feelings of trust and compassion towards others, which could make an ideal adjunct to psychotherapy for PTSD.” The group says the drug is harmless and only needs to be taken a few times to see benefits, unlike prescriptions. Jacon Sullum, posting on, takes exception to a viewpoint published on the Daily Beast by Kent Sepkowitz, an internist and infectious disease specialist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Sepkowitz discredits the notion that psychedelic drugs should gain any acceptance for treating post-traumatic stress disorder. One reason is lack of hard evidence that MDMA works. Another is conflict of interest. He also cites that the study was small, though MAPS has been clear it is a ‘pilot’ investigation. He writes: “The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS)] played a role in the study design, data analysis and writing of the report… Three authors…are employed by the sponsor. [Two lead researchers] received payment from the sponsor for conducting this research.” Like any non-profit, MAPS probably needs good news and promising findings to keep donors interested.” Sepkowitz warns the findings are “small, preliminary and inconclusive”, offering nothing more than hope. He claims the results were not statistically significant. Rick Doblin, Ph.D., Executive Director of MAPS says otherwise in the following commentary to the Daily Beast story: “As for bias, Kent seems to have been so motivated to critique our initial study that he misread our abstract and reported an incorrect claim that our statistical analysis was not significant.” Doblin is asking for a retraction. He also says though the group may be biased, the study was peer-reviewed by a group with no association to MAPS. The study was evaluated for methodology by an outside rater before it was published in a reputable scientific journal, Doblin explains. Using psychedelics drugs like MDMA to treat mental health disorders is not a new frontier. Other substances suggested to help treat PTSD include LSD and ‘magic mushrooms’. David Nutt, professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London who was fired from his position as Government advisor in 2011 says, “Psychedelics change the brain in, perhaps, the most profound way of any drug, at least in terms of understanding consciousness and connectivity. Therefore we should be doing a lot more of this research.” He believes alcohol and tobacco can do far more harm than LSD, ecstasy or cannabis. The newest finding that MDMA might help treat PTSD is getting attention. It is also sparking controversy that may not be warranted. Watch a testimonial from a parent whose daughter found joy with Ecstasy treatment at the end of her life. Digital Journal writes about how research into an illegal drug, MDMA, is stirring up minor controversy while simultaneously helping people overcome PTSD.