Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects millions of people each year, triggering amnesia, flashbacks and nightmares. Now, a new study shows that a course of MDMA, better known as the party drug “ecstasy” and “molly,” could help patients get rid of these symptoms in weeks.
The study out of the University of California, San Francisco concludes that two-thirds of patients who took the drug while also undergoing psychotherapy no longer met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD after two months.
The research is the latest to show the potentially beneficial effects of psychedelic drugs. Animal experiments have also shown ecstasy boosts processing of fear memories in an area of the brain called the amygdala.
“MDMA is really interesting because it is an empathogen. It causes the release of oxytocin in the brain, which creates feelings of trust and closeness that can really help in a therapeutic setting,” says Jennifer Mitchell, principal investigator of the study, in a statement.
Patients with PTSD have higher risks of depression, anxiety, substance use disorders and suicide. Antidepressants called SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) work in only about half. Many fail to respond or quit psychotherapy, researchers say.
The phase 3 trial involved 90 people with severe PTSD, half of whom were assigned at random to receive ecstasy. They attended an eight-hour therapy session after a small dose with the process repeated twice over a month, in addition to weekly therapy. Two months after the final session, about two thirds of those given ecstasy no longer met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD.
This was compared with a third of those who received a placebo plus counseling. Side effects such as jaw clenching and nausea were minimal, and there were no signs of addiction.
“The effect size for MDMA-assisted therapy is better than that for the SSRIs that have been investigated – suggesting MDMA is a far better therapeutic for PTSD,” says Mitchell.
Participants are now being enrolled for a second phase 3 trial. If all goes well, ecstasy for PTSD could be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) next year.
The researchers also recently completed a study showing the drug is effective in people resistant to traditional PTSD treatment, such as those with drug or alcohol use disorders.
“It definitely appears to be equally effective in people who are usually considered treatment resistant,” says Mitchell. “So we are very excited to think that MDMA-assisted therapy is going to be an effective therapeutic in that hard-to-reach population.”
To find out how long the treatment might last, the researchers are now analyzing long-term data from the phase 3 trial.
“People in the phase 2 trial were better for years. They seemed to have a new perspective on life and engaged more. As their social skill set built up, they were happier over time,” Mitchell adds.
But people in the phase 3 trial had more severe symptoms, so their treatment might not be as durable.
Despite the promising preliminary results, people with PTSD should not try to self-medicate with ecstasy.
“If MDMA is decriminalised, that doesn’t mean it is safe,” Mitchell says. “It can be a very powerful tool, but it needs to have the right dose in the right context with the right support system.”
Mitchell presented her results at the spring meeting of the American Chemical Society.
South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.