Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), more commonly known as the drug ecstasy, is most often associated with the rave culture of the 90’s, but research suggests that the drug may have useful applications outside of the dance scene.
A randomized controlled pilot study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology has found that the use of ecstasy during psychotherapy could aid the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Similar research has been conducted using psychedelic drugs such as LSD, psilocybin, ketamine, and ibogaine.
The study was conducted by Michael C. Mithoefer, Mark T. Wagner, Ann T. Mithoefer, Lisa Jermone, and Rick Doblin. Funding for the study was provided by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a debilitating and often chronic condition that is characterized by the intense and intrusive recollection of traumatic memories, anxiety, and hypervigilance. The disorder has an estimated lifetime prevalence of between 6% to 10% in the United States.
For their study, Mithoefer and his colleagues recruited 20 people who suffered from chronic PTSD. The majority of the participants in this study were women and had been diagnosed with PTSD for an average of 19 years.
Of these 20 participants, 12 were randomly assigned to receive ecstasy-assisted therapy while the remaining 8 were assigned to receive the same psychotherapy but with a placebo pill instead of ecstasy.
The psychotherapy consisted of two, eight hour sessions at an outpatient office.
“The method of psychotherapy followed principles developed by Stansilov Grof, MD and others for LSD psychotherapy and Holotropic Breathwork, and adapted for MDMA-assisted psychotherapy by Metzner and others,” explain Mithoefer and his colleagues.
“These methods were further modified by the investigators for application to PTSD treatment.”
The participants were instructed to rest in a comfortable position with eyes closed and listen to a program of music. This period of relaxation and introspection was interspersed with therapeutic discussion over the following hours.
As a press release written by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies explains, there was a significant difference between the group of participants who received ecstasy-assisted therapy and those who received psychotherapy without ecstasy.
“Participants treated with a combination of MDMA and psychotherapy saw clinically and statistically significant improvements in their PTSD – over 80% of the trial group no longer met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, stipulated in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (DSM-IV-TR) following the trial, compared to only 25% of the placebo group. In addition, all three subjects who reported being unable to work due to PTSD were able to return to work following treatment with MDMA.”
Mithoefer and his colleagues believe that the use of ecstasy during psychotherapy may be effective because it allows the patient to emotionally engage traumatic memories without becoming overwhelmed by fear or anxiety.
“The goal of using MDMA is to temporarily reduce fear and increase trust without inhibiting emotions, especially painful emotions, allowing these patients a window where psychotherapy for their PTSD is effective.”
Due to the preliminary nature of the study, these findings are limited, but Mithoefer and his colleagues are enthusiastic that further long-term research will show similarly positive results on the treatment of PTSD.
Mithoefer, M.C., Wagner, M.T., Mithoefer, A.T., Jerome, L. & Doblin, R. (2010). The safety and efficacy of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine-assisted psychotherapy in subjects with chronic, treatment-resistant posttraumatic stress disorder: the first randomized controlled pilot study. Journal of Psychopharmacology.
A video of Dr. Mithoefer discussing his findings can be viewed below.