Can MDMA Treat Alcohol Addiction?

By Britni de la Cretaz 07/05/17

This is the first time MDMA, aka, "Molly" has been used in a clinical trial for alcohol addiction.

close up of woman's hand holding yellow pills.

Researchers in Bristol, England are gearing up to begin the world’s first trial of using MDMA to treat alcohol use disorder. The trial, led by scientists at Imperial College London, will involve two doses of the drug, along with psychotherapy. MDMA is the active ingredient in ecstasy.

Participants in the study will be heavy drinkers, who consume an average of the equivalent of five bottles of wine per day. All of them are people who have tried other forms of treatment but continue to relapse into alcohol addiction.

According to The Guardian, Ben Sessa, a clinical psychiatrist on the trial and senior research fellow at Imperial College London said, “We know that MDMA works really well in helping people who have suffered trauma and it helps to build empathy. Many of my patients who are alcoholics have suffered some sort of trauma in their past and this plays a role in their addiction.”

While it might seem counterintuitive to some, psychedelic and hallucinogenic drugs are being used more often in treating various forms of mental illness, including alcohol and drug addiction. Numerous studies have shown that another hallucinogen, psilocybin (the psychedelic compound in “magic” mushrooms), may have properties that make it an effective treatment for alcohol addiction. A 2011 study led by Johns Hopkins University showed that many participants reported lower levels of alcohol consumption following their use in the trial.

Beginning in 2012, Heffter Research Institute—founded to sponsor studies on medical uses for hallucinogens—funded a small pilot trial at the University of New Mexico to test psilocybin for the treatment of alcohol addiction. The 10-participant study, which involved two psilocybin sessions, showed significant improvements in alcohol use and life satisfaction.

Not only that, a paper that examined six different trials involving LSD and people receiving alcohol addiction treatment found that 59% of subjects given a single dose of LSD showed improvements in their alcohol habits, even months later. That was compared with just 38% of people who showed improvement in their drinking habits and who didn't take the drug.

DMT, an active ingredient in the ayahuasca vine, has been used in indigenous cultures for centuries. It is being researched for its potential healing effects for addiction, depression, and anxiety. And LSD has been found to be a potentially effective treatment for other mental health concerns, as well. A 2014 study with terminally ill cancer patients revealed that LSD greatly reduced their end-of-life anxiety.

Of the new MDMA study, Sessa said, “After 100 years of modern psychiatry our treatments are really poor. The chances of relapse for these patients are really high —90% at three years. No one has ever given MDMA to treat alcoholism before.”

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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.