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MDMA Approved For Final Trials To Treat PTSD

By Dorri Olds 12/02/16

Could MDMA be approved as a prescription drug for post traumatic stress disorder?

MDMA Approved For Final Trials To Treat PTSD

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has given the go-ahead for a third phase of clinical trials for MDMA ("Molly" or ecstasy) as a viable treatment for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

According to the New York Times, the news came on Tuesday, and the non-profit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) will fund the research. MAPS, which researches psychedelics, has funded the previous studies.

In the trials, patients with PTSD took a measured dose of MDMA and spent eight hours with a therapist discussing their personal traumas. They were made to feel comfortable with soothing music, a futon bed, candles and aromatic flowers.

As for the therapeutic approach used, it was similar to Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), another form of PTSD psychotherapy—in that the patient is encouraged to face what happened to them in order to work through it. If the treatment is successful, the trauma no longer triggers a fight-or-flight response in the traumatized individual.

MDMA affects three chemicals in the brain: dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin. The user feels a combination of euphoria, speedy energy and heart rate, elevated mood, and increased empathy that presents as a feeling of enhanced emotional closeness.

One concern is that ecstasy could be addicting; some PTSD sufferers are already more susceptible to alcohol and drug problems. But writer Alex Miller, a wounded veteran with PTSD, told The Fix, “Emotionally, I’m in agony so I’d jump at the chance to try a drug that could help.”

Professor Andrew Parrott of Swansea University in Wales has studied the brains of chronic ecstasy users. He told the Times, “It sends the message that this drug will help you solve your problems, when often it just creates problems. This is a messy drug we know can do damage.”

Neuroscientist Apryl Pooley, author of Fortitude: A PTSD Memoir, told The Fix, “MDMA has shown promise for recovery from PTSD, especially for people who haven’t responded well to other therapies." C.J. Hardin, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, provided great insight with his comment to the Times, "It allowed me to see my trauma without fear or hesitation and finally process things and move forward."

It may not be the MDMA itself that heals the brain, but the environment it creates where healing can occur—and that is what we all need. Perhaps instead of shunning the use of a drug as therapy, we, including the 12-step community, should reconsider this stance.

“In my first year of recovery from alcoholism, I was also undergoing treatment for PTSD concurrently, and I refused to consider any kind of pharmaceutical treatment because I was committed to ‘sobriety.’ This was a life-threatening stance for me to take," Pooley told The Fix. "I couldn’t stay sober for any length of time and I was more suicidal than I had ever been. Processing trauma is hard and can be dangerous if it’s not done in the right environment. It wasn’t until I decided to take a prescribed anti-anxiety medication that I was able to get and stay sober and heal from my trauma. It wasn’t the medication itself that made my PTSD and addiction go away, but it absolutely helped me overcome my fear and anxiety that was preventing me from doing the healing recovery work that I needed to do.”

Lastly, The Fix spoke to Adrienne Gurman, a writer and advocate for Bring Change 2 Mind, Glenn Close’s non-profit organization dedicated to ending the stigma and discrimination surrounding mental illness. “I had PTSD for seven years," said Gurman. "It was from a family tragedy. I would try MDMA as a last resort, but I found that the best treatment was CBT [cognitive behavioral therapy] plus antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication. But I don't like to rule out anything, because if I was suicidal, I'd be willing to try anything to save my life.”

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

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