Ecstasy moves closer to getting approved as PTSD treatment

Veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may soon have another form of treatment to turn to for relief when traditional therapies fail to work. The Food and Drug Administration on November 29 authorized large-scale phase three clinical trials of MDMA after promising results from earlier studies. The trial could help open doors to more treatment options for PTSD patients who do not respond to traditional methods such as psychotherapy or antidepressants.

MDMA, commonly known as ecstasy, is an euphoria-inducing drug that has long been considered an illicit street substance. Research has shown ecstasy causes the brain to release chemicals that evoke feelings of trust and well-being while reducing anxiety, fear and negative memories that can overwhelm PTSD patients.

If successful, the trials may lead to the approval of ecstasy as a prescription drug for treating PTSD by 2021. Researchers have proposed the drug be used under the guidance of trained psychotherapists as part of a broader course of treatment. However, some scientists are concerned that approval of the feel-good drug could trigger abuse. Prolonged MDMA use and overdosing can lead to conditions such as serious brain damage, panic attacks and seizures.

The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies is funding the research. The nonprofit group advocates for the therapeutic use of marijuana and other banned drugs. Earlier stages of the clinical trials found ecstasy was effective in helping to reduce the severity of symptoms among patients with chronic PTSD. In addition, follow-up tests showed improvements lasted months after the trial.

“We can sometimes see this kind of remarkable improvement in traditional psychotherapy, but it can take years, if it happens at all,” said Dr. Michael C. Mithoefer, a psychiatrist who conducted earlier trials. “We think it [MDMA] works as a catalyst that speeds the natural healing process.”

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