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Ecstasy May Ease PTSD Symptoms

Designer Drug Ecstasy Combined With Therapy Successfully Treats Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Study Says
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

July 20, 2010 -- The street drug known as ecstasy may play a role in treating severe posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when used in conjunction with intensive therapy in a very controlled setting, according to preliminary new research in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.

When used in this manner, MDMA, also known as ecstasy, was so effective that 80% of participants had resolution of their PTSD symptoms after the end of the trial. And some participants who had been unable to work because of their symptoms were able to rejoin the workforce. The new work was funded by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a nonprofit group based in Santa Cruz, Calif., that studies the use of psychedelic drugs and marijuana in difficult-to-treat conditions.

PTSD is an anxiety disorder that occurs after a traumatic event. It is marked by persistent thoughts and fears of the event, flashbacks, and sleeplessness. Some people with PTSD withdraw from society as a result of these debilitating symptoms.

31 Hours of Therapy in 2 Months

The new study included 20 people with chronic PTSD lasting an average of more than 19 years. They took part in two, all-day therapy sessions spaced about three to five weeks apart. Twelve participants received MDMA, while eight received a placebo pill during these sessions. They also had a prep session before therapy, a debriefing session afterward, and spent the night in the clinic on treatment days. In addition, participants were in phone contact with their therapist for the week after therapy. All in all, they spent about 31 hours in therapy during the two-month study.

Eighty percent of participants who took MDMA were no longer classified as having PTSD after two months. After two months, participants in the placebo group were offered the study drug. Seven of eight opted to add the MDMA, and did equally as well as their counterparts who took the medication initially.

“We don't yet know what role MDMA may play in PTSD treatment, but the encouraging results of this pilot study suggest that it may play an important role in treating patients who have not responded to other treatments,” study author Michael C. Mithoefer, MD, a psychiatrist in Mount Pleasant, S.C., says in an email interview. “More research is needed to see if these results can be replicated elsewhere and in larger studies.”

Exactly how MDMA helps treat the symptoms of PTSD is not clear. “We are a long way from having a complete answer to that question,” Mithoefer says. In general, PTSD therapy involves revisiting trauma. “Often people with PTSD have difficulty revisiting their trauma without either being overwhelmed by emotions or being emotionally detached,” he says. Both of these can become obstacles to successful treatment, but “our impression is that MDMA catalyzes therapy by helping to overcome those obstacles.”

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