Researchers from the University of California at San Diego have recently published positive results from a late-stage trial for the efficacy of MDMA, also known as ecstasy, in treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The trials demonstrated that MDMA reduced symptoms of PTSD by 60% more than traditional talk therapy over a two-year study period. This sets the stage for potential approval of MDMA as a treatment for the disorder by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
MDMA, commonly associated with the underground rave subculture, has a long history dating back to its synthesis in 1912 by the German pharmaceutical company Merck. Originally developed as a potential medication to stop abnormal bleeding, it was later explored for therapeutic use in therapy sessions to help patients open up and become more receptive to psychotherapy. However, its increased recreational use led to a ban by the Drug Enforcement Agency in 1985.
Over the past two decades, research on the efficacy of MDMA in psychiatry has been slow due to political pressures. Clinical trials sponsored by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) began in 2000 but were shut down in 2002. It wasn’t until 2004 that MDMA was approved as an investigational new drug in the United States.
MDMA works by suppressing the fear response in the brain, allowing patients to revisit traumatic events without the overwhelming anxiety and fear associated with them. It is also believed to enhance neuroplasticity, allowing the brain to change and adapt, which is beneficial for patients who have shown little response to other forms of treatment. However, MDMA-assisted therapy is not a quick fix. It involves multiple preparatory sessions to establish trust between the patient and therapist, followed by sessions with MDMA, and subsequent integration sessions to discuss the experiences.
While MDMA-assisted therapy shows promising results, it is not without limitations. Insurance companies may require patients to have failed conventional treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy before considering MDMA therapy. The drug has not been studied in individuals with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, substance use disorders, or severe suicidality, and may carry risks for these populations. Approval from the FDA does not guarantee immediate access to MDMA therapy, and questions of access and affordability remain.
Nevertheless, experts predict that psychiatrists may begin prescribing MDMA therapy in the near future. The approval of MDMA as a treatment for PTSD could provide a new therapeutic option for patients who have exhausted other treatments.
- University of California at San Diego