Can MDMA relieve PTSD?
This new research, published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, is a follow up piece to a clinical study that was conducted last year into the effects of MDMA on PTSD. In the original study, twelve patients suffering from chronic PTSD were given MDMA as part of their therapy; they were then observed and compared to 8 PTSD sufferers who had not been given MDMA but were also going through the same therapy.
This most recent study has caught up with all but one of the twelve original patients to see how they are coping. It has been found that as result of the MDMA, the symptoms of PTSD have remained reduced, and there has been no physical or neurological harm.
How does MDMA benefit PTSD sufferers?
The psychoactive nature of MDMA is biochemically extremely complex, but revolves around the release of serotonin, dopamine and adrenaline. The exact mechanisms are not clearly understood, however, the psychoactive effects are much simpler to understand. MDMA is often said to „open the heart“ and promote a profound sense of well being and empathy, as well as open up access to traumatic memories. Therapeutically, it is this last feature that is particularly interesting.
With regular emotional defense patterns loosened, and intensified feelings of trust being felt, it is possible for those suffering from PTSD to re-visit traumatic memories and integrate these experiences without resorting to the emotional reactions that lead to the development of PTSD in the first place, such as distress, isolation or irritability.
While MDMA has not yet been established as a definitive cure for PTSD, in all clinical situations MDMA has been shown to be beneficial when used in conjunction with psychotherapy.
Long lasting benefits from a single treatment
Most conventional approaches to PTSD focus on reducing the symptoms. For example, SSRIs such as Prozac and Zoloft are commonly prescribed against depression. Often, a combination of medication and therapy is used to deal with PTSD.
The main difference between the currently used medication and MDMA seem that current medications are working only on symptoms, and do not lead to an improvement of the underlying trauma. Further, anti-depressants often need to be taken over long periods of time and come with a range of side effects.
This is contrasted with MDMA, which allows the patient to work on the core of the problem and achieve long term resolution within just a few sessions. Patients have been shown to benefit over the long term from just one dose as part of the therapy.
In clinical studies thus far, patients have undergone weekly therapy sessions, where MDMA is given on two occasions only, usually 3-5 weeks apart.
Why are we not seeing MDMA as the treatment of choice for PTSD?
That, indeed, is a good question. But as you can imagine, the answer is neither simple nor satisfying. But this question is largely valid for all psychedelics and entheogens alike - why are we not using them? There are many reasons; for one, because they are illegal. But why are they illegal? Is it because they threaten to reveal the fundamental madness of our world? Or to prevent people from getting in touch with their true self?
There is evidence that chronic MDMA use can lead to cognitive deficiencies, although studies are contradictive. Many claims about risks are largely overblown, however, weekly use of large doses have been brought in relation to attention deficits and an overall decrease in cognitive function. In controlled studies and analysis of long term MDMA users, such impairments could not be consistently observed, if at all.
There is still a long way to go before we can expect to see MDMA used therapeutically again. Clearly, more research is required. But even more importantly, our society‘s drug laws need to be fundamentally turned upside down before we can expect to see unbiased and truthful evaluation of their potential.