Could "Ecstasy" Relieve the Agony of PTSD?

An illicit street drug may aid the psychotherapy process

MDMA, better known as the illegal club drug Ecstasy, may help alleviate—or possibly cure—post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to a small new study in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. But people suffering from the disorder shouldn’t go popping the pill or reaching for glow sticks just yet. Dancing the night away under the influence of the drug won’t assuage the symptoms of PTSD. Instead, MDMA may help patients let down their guard enough to discuss traumatic memories in therapy.

For the study, researchers gave 20 patients with chronic, hard-to-treat PTSD a dose of MDMA or a sugar pill before undergoing two eight-hour psychotherapy sessions over the course of a month, along with standard weekly therapy sessions that did not involve the drug. The patients involved in the study had been suffering from PTSD for an average of 19 years. By the end of the study, more than 80 percent of the patients who took MDMA before their eight-hour therapy sessions no longer met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD—meaning they were essentially cured. Of those who took the placebo or sugar pill, 25 percent no longer required treatment for the stress disorder.

Though it’s better known as the illicit recreational drug Ecstasy, MDMA was originally manufactured in the early 1900s as a pharmaceutical ingredient. In the 1970s, some psychiatrists started administering it to their patients during psychotherapy to encourage difficult conversations. According to the study’s authors, in PTSD sufferers, MDMA may help lower the fear associated with traumatic memories, so that patients can openly discuss painful events in a therapeutic setting. MDMA is a stimulant and psychedelic drug that releases feel-good chemicals in the brain, giving users a sense of euphoria and emotional connectedness.

While the study appears promising, more research is needed to confirm its findings. Experts warn that MDMA is a dangerous drug that may have long-lasting detrimental effects on the brain, including depression, anxiety and cognitive problems. Because of its risks, people should not experiment with the drug at home. Taking it in a non-medical setting could lead to traumatic flashbacks that people with PTSD may not be able to handle on their own. Street-bought Ecstasy is often laced with other drugs like methamphetamines or cocaine, as well.

We’ve all heard the stories of Timothy Leary giving his patients LSD in the ’60s, which led, in some cases, to psychotic episodes of people jumping off of buildings when taken in unsupervised settings. Even if the drug does turn out to be a useful tool to help treat PTSD, that doesn’t mean MDMA should be taken during a night out on the town. Prescription-only painkillers serve a real purpose, but they also stand a real risk of abuse. Just because something is approved for a medical condition doesn’t mean it’s safe to take under any condition. That said, I’m excited to see how follow-up studies—to begin later this year—on how traumatized vets turn out. Emotional disorders can be notoriously difficult to treat, and if this helps people with PTSD move on with their lives, I’m all for it.

What do you think: Should MDMA (Ecstasy) be used to help treat post-traumatic stress disorder, or is there too much room for abuse? Chime in below!

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