Ecstasy can help the tortured victims of post traumatic stress overcome their demons, research has shown.
In tests, the illegal dance drug had a dramatic effect on previously untreatable patients who had suffered post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for more than 19 years.
Doctors in the US held two eight-hour psychotherapy sessions three to five weeks apart for the patients during which they administered the ecstasy chemical MDMA.
Two months later, 80% of those treated no longer had symptoms that met the medical definition of PTSD.
Ten of the 12 patients given ecstasy responded to the treatment, said the researchers led by Dr Rick Doblin, president of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies in Santa Cruz, California.
In contrast, just two out of eight patients offered a “dummy” placebo showed an improvement.
Three individuals so badly affected by their condition that they could not hold down a job were able to return to work.
The scientists have now had the go-head from the US regulatory body, the Food and Drug Administration, to carry out a bigger study of US war veterans. It will look at the effect of different doses of MDMA on ex-soldiers traumatised by their experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam.
Writing in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, the researchers said: “This pilot study demonstrates that MDMA-assisted psychotherapy with close follow-up monitoring and support can be used with acceptable and short-lived side effects in a carefully screened group of subjects with chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD.
“In this group, MDMA-assisted psychotherapy… produced clinically and statistically significant improvements in PTSD symptoms.”
PTSD is characterised by exaggerated and uncontrolled fear responses triggered by memories of a traumatic event.
It can affect victims of accidents, natural disasters, violent crime or acts of war for many years. Sufferers are prone to nightmares, flash backs, and levels of “jumpiness” and anxiety that can make it impossible to live a normal life.
The aim of the study was to see if ecstasy, or MDMA, could be used to help patients revisit their traumatic experiences without being overcome by terror.
Confronting one’s “demons” is a recognised aspect of psychological therapy for PTSD. But often patients suffer intolerable feelings when the source of their fear is brought out into the open, or become emotionally numb. The “talking” treatment is then of little use.
MDMA, which induces feelings of euphoria, well-being, sociability and self-confidence, appears to reduce this effect giving the therapy a chance to work.
The scientists wrote: “Patients with PTSD are prone to extremes of emotional numbing or extreme anxiety, and often have a narrow window between thresholds of under and over-arousal.
“MDMA may exert its therapeutic effect by widening this window. If MDMA allows patients to stay emotionally engaged without being overwhelmed by anxiety while revisiting traumatic experiences, it may thereby catalyse effective exposure therapy.”
During the treatment sessions, patients sat or reclined on a futon bed accompanied by seated therapists.
An initial dose of 125 milligrams of MDMA was followed by an additional 62.5 milligram dose two hours later with the agreement of patients.
Common side effects included fatigue, anxiety, low mood, headache and nausea which disappeared over a period of hours or days.
MDMA boosts levels of the brain chemical serotonin, which influences mood, and various hormones. One of those affected is oxytocin, the “love” hormone that increases feelings of trust and bonding.
The drug was patented in 1914 by the German drug company Merck KGaA as a compound for use in the manufacture of other medicines.
Before MDMA was outlawed in the UK in 1977, and US in 1985, a number of psychiatrists around the world used it as an aid to psychotherapy.