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Can Ecstasy Help Treat PTSD?

A controversial treatment for PTSD that involves doses of the drug "ecstasy" claims an astounding 75% success rate.

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PTSD is notoriously difficult to treat. Photo via

By McCarton Ackerman

11/20/12

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With the majority of prescription drugs and talking cures for PTSD yielding few positive gains, hundreds of recent Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are lining up to take part in a research study on PTSD that involves the use of MDMA (widely known as street drug "ecstasy"). The controversial treatment has shown promising results so far, according to husband-and-wife team behind it, Michael and Ann Mithoefer, who combine psychotherapy with doses of MDMA. In a recent paper posted in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, the Mithoefers report that 15 of 21 people who they treated in the early 2000s report minor to virtually zero symptoms today. One of the subjects of the study is Patrick, a 46-year-old living in San Francisco, who worked long hours in the rubble after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. “It changed my perspective on the entire experience of working at ground zero,” he says. "At times I had this beautiful, peaceful feeling down in the pit, that I had a purpose, that I was doing what I needed to be doing. And I began in therapy to identify with that, rather than the guilt and sadness."

The Mithoefer's administer the MDMA in two doses over one long therapy session, which follows a series of weekly sessions without the drug; another MDMA session takes place three to five weeks later and non-drug sessions are conducted both before and after the treatment. For most subjects, their scores on general symptoms (including depression, general anxiety and nightmares) dropped by about 75%—a rate nearly double that for those who received therapy without MDMA. “When it comes to the health and well-being of those who serve, we should leave our politics at the door and not be afraid to follow the data,” says Brig. Gen. Loree Sutton, a psychiatrist who recently retired from the Army. “There’s now an evidence base for this MDMA therapy and a plausible story about what may be going on in the brain to account for the effects.”

The study is the first long-term test to suggest hallucinogens and other recreational drugs could actually be effective in treating psychiatric disorders. However, the study's results are not conclusive; most of the initial test subjects were rape victims, and the long-term results for victims of war trauma are not yet known. Despite this, many veterans are eager to take part in the therapy. “We’ve had more than 250 vets call us,” says Michael, although FDA regulations currently prevent the team  from treating more than 24 veterans with the therapy, since MDMA is not approved for medical uses. Although the treatment is still taboo and research remains inconclusive, hallucinogenic drugs like Ecstasy have been quietly used by the military to treat PTSD among vets for years. Given the lack of effective treatments for PTSD, “there is a tremendous need to study novel medications,” including MDMA, says Dr. John H. Krystal, chairman of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine.

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