NewScientist. “Ecstasy may help trauma victims.” By Arran Frood.
Arran Frood, contributor
MDMA, the drug commonly known as ecstasy, can help treat people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when used in conjunction with psychotherapy, according to a study published today in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.
The finding, if replicated, will be historic: the first time that MDMA has been shown to offer therapeutic benefits to patients when used in clinical practice.
MDMA was used as a therapy drug from the late 1970s despite there being little scientific evidence for its effectiveness. In what was called the second summer of love in the late 1980s, it escaped to the dance floor and was banned before any clinical human trials could be performed.
To better understand potential benefits of the drug, Michael Mithoefer, a psychiatrist and clinical researcher practising privately in South Carolina, and colleagues gave either MDMA or a placebo to 20 patients with PTSD, mostly female victims of sexual abuse, who had not responded to conventional drugs.
Subjects were given two eight-hour psychotherapy sessions three to five weeks apart, during which they were administered MDMA or a placebo. Over the course of the experiment volunteers also took part in weekly psychotherapy sessions.
The volunteers were tested for symptoms of PSTD before and after each treatment, as well as two months later. Out of 12 participants who received MDMA, 10 saw significant improvements in their condition – no longer having symptoms that met the medical definition of PTSD – compared with two of the eight participants who received the placebo.
Mithoefer says the results are very encouraging, but notes that this was a preliminary study and the results need to be reproduced:
My guess is that the positive results will be obtained in other studies, but that remains to be seen.
The study was funded by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a non-profit organisation that funds research on the use of psychedelics and marijuana as a prescription medicine.
MAPS president and founder Rick Doblin is an author on the paper and maintains that the declared conflicts of interests – that all the authors are on MAPS’s payroll – does not weaken the paper’s conclusions. “Somebody has got to pay for the study,” he says. “We are doing this in a non-profit context and are hoping that other people will try and replicate it.”
But Ken Checinski, a consultant psychiatrist at St George’s, London, has his doubts:
Given the unblinding (through guessing) and the interests of the authors, a confounding placebo effect and bias towards reporting positive changes is to be expected.
Simon Wessely, an expert in PTSD at King’s College London, also warns against taking any immediate action in an interview with the BBC:
Given that substance abuse is associated with many mental health problems, including PTSD, I would want to see a lot more data before recommending this.
However, for one volunteer the results couldn’t be better: “I heard about it and I decided to give it a try,” a former army ranger who participated in the study told Military.com:
It’s basically like years of therapy in two or three hours. You can’t understand it until you’ve experienced it.
Other studies hoping to replicate the results are currently planned or under way in the US, Switzerland, Canada, Israel and Spain. Results are expected from the Swiss trials later this year.
This balanced article discusses MAPS’ PTSD research and the prospect of having MDMA a legal drug for therapy in the future. The author also offers caution that this is still an early investigation and that more research is needed.