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Could doctors begin to use MDMA for PTSD?

There have long been numerous problems with standard ways of treating war veterans who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Drugs such Xanax or Valium, used to treat traumatic brain injuries that veterans often suffer in conjunction with PTSD, can sometimes actually exacerbate PTSD symptoms. Veteran’s PTSD is also much more difficult to treat than the type of PTSD civilians undergo, as it is rare for it to be caused by one specific event – although a particular event can trigger symptoms. So, scientists have been searching for a way to treat veterans specifically.

To this end, MDMA, aka Ecstasy or “X,”, after having been subject to trials treating veterans and firefighters with PTSD, has now been approved for Phase 3 clinical trials by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These trials are the last before the drug could be made available for nationwide use. MDMA is more commonly associated with club culture and Ibiza, so it may be a shock for some to see it used to treat a serious mental condition. The drug is not thought to be physically addictive, but it can become mentally addictive, like any substance, and can gain special significance in people’s lives who use it regularly.

Up until now, there have been successful trials of MDMA for PTSD in combination with psychotherapy on veterans like C.J. Hardin, who was interviewed by The New York Times. He is a veteran of three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan who had tried almost all accepted treatments including psychotherapy, group therapy, and nearly a dozen medications, none of which seemed to help.

“Nothing worked for me, so I put aside the idea that I could get better,” Hardin admitted. “I just pretty much became a hermit in my cabin and never went out.”

MDMA For PTSD: Opening The Gates Of Self-Understanding

However, a recent course of psychotherapy combined with MDMA for PTSD doses have changed his life. He told The New York Times: It allowed me to see my trauma without fear or hesitation and finally process things and move forward.

We spoke to US army veteran Tony Macie, who also used MDMA to assist treatment of PTSD, to ask how the treatment helped him to deal with the condition: “It helped me confront my trauma and understand my triggers and coping mechanisms better. I was able to feel less anxiety and clearly deal with issues I was suppressing.”

He went on to say, “In the long term, it helped me understand myself better and how to accept hardship and death. I’d recommend MDMS only for people who are treatment resistant and in conjunction with psychotherapy.” If these veterans have been helped so much by the treatment, then surely it is time to push it as an effective way to combat PTSD.

This report by Ana Kasparian and John Iadarolaon on The Young Turks discusses Hardin’s case and the issue in general. Iadarolaon maligns the reputation that certain drugs, like weed, have gained over years of misinformation, and how difficult it is to shake off that stigma. He commented that, It’s so easy to brand a drug as either purely entertainment or having some good side effects.

Ironically, MDMA, a drug which is regarded by most people as a potentially much more harmful than marijuana, could potentially be approved for use in medical treatment by the FDA before marijuana does. Iadarolaon also correctly points out that MDMA, like many illegal drugs, was originally synthesized for medical uses. Back before it was made illegal in the ’70s, MDMA was used in conjunction with therapy.

Perhaps common sense will soon prevail and unfairly stigmatized drugs like MDMA can be used to treat illness, without their recreational reputation getting in the way of research. MDMA on the street is often adulterated with things like amphetamine

According to – an independent laboratory testing program of Erowid Center – among 250 samples they analyzed in 2014 that were sold as molly, 40 samples contained MDMA with adulterants, and nearly half (124) contained no MDMA at all!

MDMA For PTSD: Pilot Study

The successful pilot study on MDMA-assisted psychotherapy resulted in 83 percent of the subjects finding that their PTSD symptoms had been alleviated. What’s more, every patient who was given a placebo and then went on to receive MDMA-assisted psychotherapy experienced significant and lasting improvements to their mental health. There were no drug-related serious adverse effects, adverse neurocognitive effects, or clinically significant blood pressure increases  — a relief as any harmful or questionable side effects could have held up further trials. Thankfully there were none and it was concluded that MDMA-assisted psychotherapy can be used to treat PTSD without harmful repercussions, a huge step forward for the treatment of PTSD in veterans.

“Since I was fortunate enough to have MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, I no longer take prescription medications; I quit using tobacco, and I cut a lot of GMOs out of my diet. Why? Because therapy taught me to take care of myself. That was my greatest desire: to stay connected to my heart, and let in the love,” explains Anthony Macie, a paratrooper in the Army who served in Iraq.

An important distinction to make here is that the study doesn’t suggest just handing out prescriptions of MDMA for patients to take endlessly. The therapy itself only involves two doses of MDMA, given to patients over two eight-hour sessions that are three to five weeks apart. For most patients, this is the first and last time they will ever take MDMA, and it could help significantly change their lives for the better. Veterans suffering from PTSD are three times more likely to commit suicide, and in some cases up to 100 times more likely to commit homicide than an average person, so it would be senseless to allow stigma to prevent this treatment that could help so many people.

MDMA for PTSD works like a therapeutic catalyst, meaning that it can aid patients in addressing painful or stressful memories that might otherwise cause them huge distress to talk about — after taking the drugs twice in combination with the therapy, patients’ scores on common PTSD symptoms such as anxiety, paranoia, nightmares, and depression, consistently dropped by over 75 percent.

Although, MDMA is more commonly known as a party drug (you can check out how it affects your brain in this video), the chemical effects it has on the brain that aids this treatment are very profound. PTSD patients tend to have a lack of brain communication between the amygdala and the hippocampus (two different parts of the brain that help control memory, decision making, and emotional reactions), and MRI analysis has actually shown that MDMA can help to increase this communication. MDMA can help relive and discuss hurtful memories with more ease — allowing patients to deal better with their trauma.

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MAPS Treatment

What remains clear is that PTSD is not a health issue that can be self-medicated, and should not be treated as such. In a recent episode of London Real, Rick Doblin, founder and executive director of MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies), recounts the risks of desperate veterans attempting trials of MDMA treatment by buying some illegally and trying to cure themselves of PTSD. He insists that this is a risky strategy, and that mental health could be damaged even more by this practice, namely because when buying any drug on the street, you just don’t know what you are getting. He maintains that MDMA for PTSD works, but only in conjunction with the associated psychotherapy — so hopefully it should soon be open to any veterans who suffers from PTSD.

The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies is a nonprofit that was founded in 1985 to advocate for the legal medical use of MDMA, LSD, marijuana, and other banned drugs. They sponsored six Phase 2 clinical studies that treated 130 PTSD patients with the MDMA-assisted psychotherapy.

We spoke to Brad Burge, Director of Communications and Marketing at MAPS, to ask about the work that MAPS is doing with MDMA-assisted psychotherapy:

“On Nov. 29, 2016, we met with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to plan our upcoming Phase 3 clinical trials of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”

Phase 3 of the research involves a roughly $25 million plan to make MDMA into an  FDA-approved prescription medicine by 2021.

Burge went on to comment:

The outcome was as encouraging as we’d hoped: the FDA is ready for MAPS to move forward with the final stage of research necessary to make MDMA-assisted psychotherapy a legal treatment option for PTSD. We expect formal approval of the Phase 3 trials in early 2017, and starting Phase 3 in June 2017. Now for the first time, there is a clear path ahead for the prescription approval of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD.

MDMA is a controversial drug, and will doubtless continue to be so for the foreseeable future. What we can say is that it has been proven to be an incredibly effective aid for the treatment of PTSD, an issue that soldiers have been grappling with for centuries. If there is one thing that politics cannot get in the way of, it’s the health care of the men and women who fight for their country — whether you agree with the war or not. Despite the FDA refusing to comment on the drug and its potential uses, we can remain, in the words of Dr. Charles R. Marmar, a leading PTSD researcher, “cautious but hopeful” that science will prevail and that we might soon have a better understanding of how to treat and deal with PTSD.

Your Brain On MDMA:

Josh HamiltonJosh Hamilton is an aspiring journalist from Belfast, Northern Ireland, living in London, Ontario. Lover of music, politics, tech, and life.

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