MDMA (Ecstacy): A New Treatment for Depression and PTSD
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Do some street drugs have medicinal benefits? Many used to doubt the medical merits of marijuana, but as of today, twenty-three states have enacted laws to legalize medical marijuana. Now, it looks as though medical marijuana could be a gateway to looking into the medical benefits of other substances that may soon be legal.
Researchers are looking into the potential therapeutic advantages offered by a controversial drug called 3,4-MethyleneDioxyMethAmphetamine or MDMA. MDMA is a stimulant and psychedelic drug that was originally developed for psychotherapists to use with their patients, but it has since become known as a popular recreational drug, and these days it is most commonly associated with the name "Molly". Molly has become popularized in the American club scene in a non-medical context, which resulted in it's prohibition many years ago. Molly is said to be a pure, powdered form of MDMA taken in capsules, and those who take MDMA report a feeling of euphoria. However, many doubt that the street drug "Molly" and MDMA are the same thing, because much of the Molly confiscated has been found to contain synthetic materials or other drugs in powder form and sometimes contains no MDMA at all. Molly might have started as pure MDMA, but the non-medical form appears to have devolved over time into something else.
The history of MDMA and psychotherapy dates back to the 1970s, when many psychiatrists believed the drug had psychotherapeutic attributes. In 1985, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration banned the drug categorizing it as a Schedule 1 drug – a drug with no therapeutic potential. Although the drug is now deemed to be illegal, not everyone has turned their back on the potential for MDMA's medicinal benefits. Today, there has been some research indicating that MDMA, when used with traditional psychotherapy, might be able to help those with post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.
PTSD afflicts some who have been through a traumatic event such as sexual abuse or combat. Sufferers sometimes feel as if they are reliving the trauma, and the condition can cause severe anxiety and depression. According to USA Today writer Rachel Chason, more than 5 million Americans suffer from PTSD each year, and the most common treatment for PTSD is psychotherapy. However, traditional psychotherapy is considered to be too slow to make rapid progress, so MDMA is now being studied in order to re-consider how it may accelerate the beneficial impact of psychotherapy.
The initial results of MDMA-assisted therapy for those with PTSD seem positive, and Chason cites a 2010 study performed by psychiatrist Michael Mithoefer, M.D., where PTSD patients were treated with MDMA and psychotherapy. Mithoefer found that 83% of the patients who received therapy and MDMA were cured while only 25% of the patients who received only psychotherapy were cured. MDMA made a significantly positive impact on the rate of recovery.
MDMA-assisted treatment proponents believe that the drug makes those suffering from PTSD more responsive to therapy - They say the feeling of euphoria helps to dissolve psychological and emotional defense mechanisms, which makes it easier for the patient to receive and respond to therapy. They also believe that the drug offers patients a more objective view of their situation, which allows them to gain additional insight into their symptoms.
MDMA stimulates the neurotransmitters in the brain serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. Serotonin has a large effect on mood, and increased levels of serotonin are likely behind the good feelings those who take MDMA report. However, it’s not a case of “the more serotonin, the better.” Releasing too much serotonin can cause negative effects on mood once the neurotransmitter is depleted, so expert medical guidance is required when administering MDMA. Those taking MDMA have been known to have side effects of chills, muscle tension, nausea, and other unpleasant symptoms, and the drug can have powerful side effects in some that can lead to liver, cardiovascular, or kidney failure – all of which could prove fatal if not properly supervised by a medical doctor. However, some who take MDMA only have mild side effects, such as a slightly raised pulse or blood pressure. For these patients, could MDMA prove to be a wonder drug for those with PTSD?
The organization MAPS (the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies), which funds clinical trials using MDMA-assisted therapy, says that MDMA can be effective after only a few doses are administered in conjunction with therapy, whereas other mental health drugs (SSRI's) sometimes have to be taken for years to treat a patient. This could point to MDMA serving as an effective form of treatment – possibly a silver bullet.
While the research suggests that MDMA may help people with PTSD, the results are certainly not without controversy. There are many questions surrounding these studies, and some will raise moral objections anytime a currently illegal drug is used therapeutically. Most scientists agree that more research is needed to determine definitively if MDMA has therapeutic benefits. So far the sample sizes have been small, and a larger pool of patients will be needed to gain conclusive evidence.
Do the advantages of MDMA outweigh the risks? Only time and more research will tell.
- Cathy Poley
I have been a counselor for over two decades both formally and informally, and I have witnessed patients with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. My experiences are not limited to just military personnel that have experienced traumatic events on the battlefield. I have often encountered victims of child abuse in every form as well as some who have survived tragic trauma-filled events, such as house fires, car accidents, natural disasters, or person-on-person violence, when their friends or family did not survive the disaster. In some instances the case could be made that the patient suffered from a form of survivors guilt, but that would not negate any residual effects of the traumatic event and certainly could not rule out a diagnosis of PTSD.
I do not have the personal experience of using MDMA or any other drug in conjunction with the other forms of therapy, as I am not a medical doctor. However, having treated patients over the years from a counseling perspective, I can see the potential benefits of using all of the tools and treatments available. I certainly believe that more research needs to be completed, and that any use even in a trail setting should be conducted under the keen scrutiny of a knowledgeable physician.
I have always served in the best interest of the patient, so who am I to prevent a patient from using MDMA if it could be in the patient's best interest?
Chason, U. (2014, July 11). Studies ask whether MDMA can cure PTSD. Retrieved December 5, 2014, from http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/07/11/mdma-molly-therapy-ptsd-cure/10683963/