Science Names MDMA-Assisted Therapy for PTSD a 2021 Scientific Breakthrough of the Year

December 20, 2021

  • Prestigious recognition from world’s leading outlet for scientific news and peer-reviewed cutting-edge research is a first for psychedelic-assisted therapy
  • Award comes 19 years after Science published a later-retracted article falsely claiming that MDMA caused dopaminergic neurotoxicity leading to Parkinson’s disease along with an editorial comparing taking MDMA to playing Russian Roulette

 A blockbuster year of advancements in psychedelic-assisted therapies is culminating with recognition of the profound potential of emerging treatments for difficult-to-treat mental health conditions. On December 16,  the journal Science designated MAPS’ MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD among its top ten Scientific Breakthroughs of the Year in 2021. The trauma-focused therapy was recognized alongside major findings in computational biochemistry, planetary science, particle physics, and health sciences in an announcement noting that: 

“The mind-altering power of psychedelic drugs has raised hopes that they can ease psychiatric disease, but few large, rigorous ­trials have shown they’re effective. This year brought a big win for the field: A multicenter, randomized, controlled trial found that 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), popularly called ecstasy, significantly reduced symptoms in patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).” 

Science 2021 Breakthroughs of the Year

“The FDA recognized MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD as a Breakthrough Therapy in 2017. It’s exciting to see the rest of the world now take notice, too,” shares Berra Yazar-Klosinski, Ph.D., Chief Science Officer for MAPS Public Benefit Corporation (MAPS PBC). “We are honored to be in the same category as advances in CRISPR technology, the advent of COVID-19 antiviral pills, and new discoveries in fusion energy and particle physics –a testament to just how large an impact psychedelic medicine stands to make.” 

The first Phase 3 trial of any psychedelic-assisted therapy was sponsored by the nonprofit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) and organized by MAPS PBC, a wholly-owned subsidiary of MAPS. Nature Medicine published the peer-reviewed paper detailing the results of this study on May 10, 2021. “MAPS and MAPS PBC pioneered the drug development pathway to  move psychedelic-assisted therapies through the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA),” says Amy Emerson, Chief Executive Officer for MAPS PBC. “If approved, our treatment will be the first drug-and-therapy combination to complete the rigorous FDA regulatory process. Currently there are approximately 40 psychedelic-assisted therapy studies underway in the United States and,  if approved, we hope our treatment will be the first of many to be made available to those in need of effective mental health treatments.”

In 2002, Science Magazine published a now-retracted peer-reviewed paper which suggested erroneously that MDMA causes dopaminergic neurotoxicity leading to Parkinson’s disease. Doblin and other researchers associated with MAPS disputed the study in a letter to the editors of Science. In response,the original researchers at Johns Hopkins University attempted to replicate the findings on which the paper was based but failed to replicate. An investigation eventually revealed that the study mistakenly administered methamphetamine instead of MDMA, and led Science to retract the article in 2003. Numerous prior and follow-up studies have demonstrated that MDMA is not neurotoxic to dopaminergic neurons. 

“We’ve come full circle with Science recognizing MDMA-assisted therapy as a breakthrough of 2021,” Rick Doblin, Ph.D., the Founder and Executive Director of MAPS, happily shared. “In 2003, based on the since-retracted article, an editorial statement by the President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the publisher of Science, compared the taking of MDMA to playing Russian Roulette. That assessment further stigmatized MDMA and hindered its scientific research. Now, Science is rectifying that previous bias. I’m thrilled to see it for myself 19 years later.” 

Since 2004, MAPS’ nearly 2000 clinical administrations of MDMA in FDA regulated protocols so far support approval of MDMA-assisted therapy as safe and effective for the treatment of PTSD. Science’s Breakthrough of the Year award recognizes the profound treatment potential of MDMA’-assisted therapy for PTSD and marks the transition of psychedelic research from the suppressed fringe to FDA-accepted mainstream science.

The safety and efficacy of MDMA-assisted therapy is currently under investigation. It has not yet been approved by the FDA, does not work for everyone, and carries risks even in therapeutic settings. These statements are no guarantee of future FDA approval or availability of MDMA-assisted therapy. These statements necessarily involve known and unknown risks and uncertainties, which may cause actual outcomes to differ materially from our projections.


Betty Aldworth, Director of Communications

Founded in 1986, MAPS is a 501(c)(3) non-profit research and educational organization that develops medical, legal, and cultural contexts for people to benefit from the careful uses of psychedelics and marijuana. MAPS is sponsoring the most advanced psychedelic therapy research in the world: Phase 3 clinical trials of MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD. Since its founding, MAPS has raised over $130 million in donations or grants  for psychedelic and marijuana research and education and has earned both the Guidestar Platinum Seal of Transparency and a 4-Star Rating from Charity Navigator

MAPS Public Benefit Corporation (MAPS PBC) catalyzes healing and well-being through psychedelic drug development, therapist training programs, and sales of prescription psychedelics while prioritizing public benefit above profit. Founded in 2014, MAPS PBC is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.