Scientific review finds MDMA therapy as effective as exposure therapy for PTSD patients

Psychotherapy incorporating use of the drug MDMA, also known as Ecstasy, is equally effective in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as the most widely accepted psychiatric treatment for the disorder, according to a meta-analysis to be published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.

PTSD is a serious psychiatric disorder which affects a significant proportion of the population, and is especially common among veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Treatment of PTSD has been problematic. The majority of patients do not respond well to treatment with existing drugs. The most widely accepted psychotherapeutic treatment, prolonged exposure therapy, has a high dropout rate due to its requirement for patients to repeatedly relive traumatic experiences, which often makes symptoms worsen before they improve.

Recently, some psychologists have suggested that MDMA may have potential as a part of a treatment for PTSD due to its ability to inhibit negative emotions and foster closer and more trusting social bonds between the patient and therapist.

Researchers from the University of New Hampshire, Timothy Amoroso and Michael Workman, used meta-analytic statistical techniques to compare the effectiveness of psychotherapy incorporating MDMA with standard prolonged exposure therapy for the treatment of PTSD. In total, their study looked at 37 patients enrolled in MDMA therapy evaluated in two studies and 675 patients enrolled in prolonged exposure therapy evaluated in 13 studies.

Results of the study showed that both forms of treatment were equally effective at treating PTSD, when compared with control groups. For the prolonged exposure evaluations, controls either received placebo treatment or were on a waiting list for other treatments. Controls in the MDMA evaluation studies received the same psychotherapy but with a placebo drug in place of MDMA. Therapy using MDMA also had a lower dropout rate than prolonged exposure therapy, at 13% versus 27%.

The study authors conclude that MDMA has promise as a component of psychotherapeutic treatment for PTSD, particularly for patients who do not respond to more traditional treatment using prolonged exposure therapy or existing drug therapies. They note that few adverse effects were reported in the evaluations of MDMA therapy, and suggest that the relatively low dropout rate may indicate that patients found the treatment easier to cope with than prolonged exposure therapy.

Given the high human and economic costs of PTSD, Amoroso and Workman urge that “it is imperative that emerging treatments such as MDMA-AP become avail- able, and are thoroughly considered, in order to help the many suffering from PTSD.”