The drug, 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (better known by its much catchier abbreviation of MDMA) is mostly considered to be a party drug. It’s a synthetic, psychoactive substance that binds to the transporters involved in serotonin reuptake, resulting in more serotonin in the synaptic space. A similar effect is seen within the norepinephrine and dopamine systems and consequently, we see an increased amount of the neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine in the brains of MDMA users. This all sounds pretty technical, but to put it simply, MDMA alters the moods and perceptions of its users, resulting in feelings of empathy and euphoria.
Researchers from the United States have been interested in discovering whether MDMA’s mood-altering effects could be useful in the treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Having already graduated from Phase One trials that determined the safety, side effects and dosage, the drug has now passed Phase Two, demonstrating that the drug has the desired effect upon a significant number of people.
In one of the experimental trials, conducted between November 2010 and January 2015, 26 veterans and first responders were split into three conditions and given different amounts of the drug, alongside receiving psychotherapy. At the endpoint of the study, participants from the groups receiving the two highest dosages (75 milligrams and 125 milligrams) showed distinct decreases in their symptoms of PTSD, to the extent that 68 per cent of the patients no longer met the clinical criteria for the disorder.
This study is not alone in proving the potential uses of MDMA. In total, 136 patients have taken part in these Phase Two trials and the results have been conclusive enough to move forward into Phase Three. In this stage, a much larger number of participants will be required to assess the drug’s effectiveness thoroughly; however, with all going well, researchers from MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) hope that by 2021 the drug could be legalised for medical purposes.
What we are recurrently reminded of in the research is that the MDMA used by scientists is unlike the ecstasy that most people are familiar with. Street drugs are often bulked with an alarming amount of other substances, some of which can be incredibly dangerous, whereas the trials use pure MDMA in dosages that have been rigorously tested to validate their safety.
However, despite these astounding results, conducting research on illicit substances will always come with an amount of difficulty. The difference between the pure chemical substance and the street drug is often lost, which creates misconceptions about treating health problems using these substances.
Whilst it should be clarified that street MDMA, or so-called ‘ecstasy’, can still be incredibly dangerous, Provincial Health Officer Dr Perry Kendall has stated that the pure form of the drug has been proven safe in controlled clinical trials by psychiatrists. Therefore, societal stigmas should not get in the way of what may be a life-changing treatment.
PTSD can be notoriously difficult to treat. There are currently only two medications prescribed to treat it, and the effectiveness of therapy is often limited. Yet, as described by Rick Doblin, author of the research, “In a few deep therapeutic sessions with MDMA, people can change decades and decades of patterns of fear based on certain emotions”.
Image credit: jarmoluk via Pixabay