MDMA, in combination with talking therapy, has shown promising results in the treatment of people with severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In a US study comparing traditional talking therapy with MDMA-assisted therapy, including MDMA in a treatment plan led to 88% of people with PTSD experiencing a reduction in symptoms.
The treatment was so effective that 67% of those receiving MDMA-assisted therapy no longer qualified for a PTSD diagnosis.
The effect was far greater than talking therapy alone which provided a significant reduction in symptoms for 60% of participants and remission for 32%.
Participants receiving MDMA did so in a controlled environment over 3 sessions and across an 18-week period, alongside traditional talking therapy.
PTSD is a condition often caused by a traumatic experience, such as an accident, illness, combat or abuse, and affects around 4 in every 100 people in the UK.
A common characteristic of PTSD is the occurrence of 'flashbacks' which happen when the mind and body of a person who has experienced trauma cannot distinguish between the past event and the present, leading to the person reliving their trauma.
Symptoms of the condition are thought to occur, in part, due to over-activity of a specific part of the brain, the amygdala, which is associated with the body's fear and stress responses.
PTSD is also linked to functional impairment and depression – both of which MDMA-assisted therapy also significantly reduced compared with talking therapy alone.
All three measurements of PTSD severity (CAPS-5, graph a), functional impairment (SDS, graph b), and depressive symptoms (BDI-II, graph c), showed significant improvements with MDMA-assisted therapy vs talking therapy alone.
The new data helps to justify growing interest in the use of recreational drugs and psychedelics for treating mental health issues.
An upcoming trial conducted by researchers at Cardiff University will investigate MDMA-assisted therapy for people living with PTSD, while cannabidiol – the substance responsible for the psychological effects of cannabis – continues to be investigated as a future treatment option for psychosis.
Despite the positive data found in this study, the effects were demonstrated in a small sample of people with PTSD (46 people received MDMA-assisted therapy in total) while the people enrolled were volunteers which could skew the validity of the results.
The therapy MDMA was paired with also is not recommended by the NHS, reducing the data's relevance for people with PTSD in the UK.
Even so, those that took part in the study had been experiencing symptoms of PTSD for an average of 14 years, suggesting that their condition was well-established, while positive effects were even seen in patients with co-morbidities, such as depression and alcohol abuse.
The possibility of MDMA-assisted therapy for people with PTSD may be emerging at just the right time, suggest the study authors.
"We may soon be confronted with the potentially enormous economic and social repercussions of PTSD, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic," state the authors. "Overwhelmingly high rates of psychological and mental health impairment could be with us for years to come and are likely to impart a considerable emotional and economic burden.
"Novel PTSD therapeutics are desperately needed, especially for those for whom comorbidities confer treatment resistance."
To read to the full study paper, click here.
Written by Marco Ricci
Editor and contributor for Talking Mental Health