MDMA: From Parties to Patients
By: Josie Thompson
MDMA or ecstasy has gained a reputation as a club drug since it was made illegal in the mid 80s, before the prohibition many therapists saw potential to help people suffering from a whole slew of mental issues. Recent research has moved MDMA from the dim light of dance clubs to the doctor’s desk, where this drug originated. MDMA was discovered as a byproduct of a compound developed in 1912 at Merck, Germany. Alexander Shulgin an American chemist began research on controlling the mind altering states that MDMA could produce. Therapeutic potential was reported at the time but, soon the FDA banned continued human research because of concerns with possible neurotoxicity. Researchers have moved into phase three for trials of MDMA and they expect approval from the Food and Drug Administration by 2021. In recent research there have been promising findings in using MDMA to treat Anxiety, Autism, Alcohol Addiction, Depression, and PTSD. These treatments using MDMA are administered under professional therapists supervision and do not require ongoing administration to achieve lasting benefits (unlike common pharmaceuticals today.) MDMA catalyzes a shift in thought towards openness and introspection, allowing patients to access feelings and thoughts not normally available to them.
Studies using MDMA as treatment for PTSD were published this past May with astounding results, currently MDMA is a schedule 1 narcotic in the DEA’s eyes this means “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” In analyzing results of using MDMA in psychotherapy researchers have found that a majority of patients with PTSD benefited from treatment with this “schedule 1 narcotic.” This study was conducted with twenty six participants suffering from PTSD, including combat veterans, firefighters, and policemen. The MDMA and psychotherapy treatment was so effective that roughly two thirds of the group left the study no longer meeting the clinical requirements for PTSD. An author of the paper, and executive director of Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS, which funded the research) Rick Doblin PhD says “In a few deep therapeutic sessions with MDMA, people can change decades and decades of patterns of fear based on certain emotions and that’s what’s so remarkable about it.” The other options as far as medication go for PTSD are Paxil and Zoloft, these two medications often offer limited results and require a daily dosage. This research holds a promising future for helping those who suffer from this heinous illness.
MDMA is known for reducing anxiety in those who take it, therefore it is not a surprise that it could be used to treat those with long term anxiety. MDMA notably suppresses activity in the amygdala, a part of the brain that contributes to fear and anxiety. Most of the research on using MDMA as a medicinal treatment for anxiety is more directed towards social anxiety, or social anxiety tied to Autism. Part of the reason MDMA is popular in recreationally in party settings is that the user finds themselves feeling empathetic and prosocial, this also helps those who suffer from anxiety in group settings. In autistic individuals the amygdala may function differently than that of typically developing (TD) individuals, which can result in social perceptions that differ from the norm. In TD healthy participants MDMA lowers the action in the left side of the amygdala which controls responses to angry faces and interpretations of other negative cues. Traditional anti-anxiety medicines such as SSRIs, MAOIs, and benzodiazepines that work for TD people, do not produce the same effects in autistic adults. People on the Autism spectrum are more at risk for social anxiety and more likely to go untreated because of the pressures to fit into the societal norm. The introduction of the internet has made it easier for some people with Autism to communicate, and a dialogue has developed on forums about using MDMA at home to treat Autism. These first person accounts all remark how significantly it has helped with social anxiety, but many warn that set and setting is very importanting when imbibing the drug. Other common themes are reported relief from anxiety and trauma, overall improvement in functioning, as well as psychosocial healing, have been reported in over 250 accounts in online forums. In a survey quantitative data was produced saying 91% of respondents reported that they experienced “Increased Feelings of Empathy/Connectedness,” and 86% indicated “Ease of Communication” as an effect of their MDMA/Ecstasy use, 72% of MDMA/Ecstasy experienced participants reported “more comfort in social settings,” and 12% indicated that the effect lasted for two or more years. In early research with psychedelics researchers were able to have conversations with mute autistic youths. Although all of these anecdotes, surveys, and old research seem promising we do not yet have concrete findings on the effectiveness of MDMA in the autistic population. Studies on all of this have led to produce a method for administering a treatment model for research have been published. We can hope to see the findings of this research published in the next five years.
In 2016 a study was conducted on clinically depressed people with the help of MDMA. A participant in the study, Christina Ingenito was diagnosed with breast cancer and found herself clinically depressed. The study is quite similar to most models using MDMA to treat mental illness, after seeing the patients in a standard therapeutic setting for four sessions, they then embarked on medicinal guided journeys. Christina describes these experiences as incredible, saying she could feel the anxiety and depression leaving her body after taking MDMA. For her the disappearance of her mental issues lasted past the life of the drug, and she feels like her life force has been returned. Depression affects 350 million adults worldwide, being one of the most common disabilities in the world there are many antidepressants out there. Unfortunately for one third of the American population these depression medications do not help. If some of these adults could be helped by MDMA the way that Christina was, it could mean a lot for the future of healthcare. Though the use of MDMA to treat depression is promising it is not as well grounded as using it for treatment in PTSD or anxiety. The calming aspect of MDMA along with the ability to open trust may be helpful in therapy sessions with those experiencing depression.
Alcohol addiction is another avenue of treatment that is being explored by proponents of MDMA’s medicinal powers. The story of using MDMA to treat alcohol addiction is much like the other stories of explorations in treating mental illness with this currently illegal drug. Alcoholism is often connected to deeper emotional issues such as trauma that play a role in their addiction. The results that have been shown in studies with trauma and improved empathy leads researchers to believe that MDMA could help alcoholics. Relapse is high in people recovering from alcohol addiction, a ninety percent chance at three years. It is understandable why relapse is so common, as alcohol is a socially integrated drug and as an addict it can be hard to avoid a temptation you are always surrounded by. Doctors in Bristol are ready to begin the first trial with MDMA as medicine for alcoholics. Manufacturing pure enough MDMA has slowed down the process of starting these trials, but after spending sixty two thousand euros they have produced twelve grams of ninety nine percent pure MDMA to be used for trials. The trials will be conducted similarly to that of the trials for PTSD, the patients will go through a physical detox, have two standard therapy sessions, before embarking on a therapy session with MDMA. These trials while exciting provoke a bit of worry in me, if someone is already addiction prone what is to stop them from developing a MDMA addiction. I understand that these are controlled settings, but a patient could leave this situation and start habitually taking molly as a replacement for alcohol. Although I have personal reservations in this area of treatment with MDMA, I will be excited to see the results of the trials in Bristol.
MDMA’s perception in the medical community has certainly changed drastically in the past decade. Although we have only discussed MDMA treatments that are being researched, a slew of drugs traditionally used for recreational purposes are being looked at as possible medicines for mental illness. Ketamine, LSD, and psilocybin are some of the drugs being tested for their uses in the mental health community. Underground therapists are already providing these treatments for patients, and have seen positive results. An important thing to hold in mind when leaving this subject is that the drug allows you to access trauma and emotions not normally accessible, thus allowing you to to work through these difficult emotions. By no means does the drug work well independently of therapy, you should not take hallucinogens and expect to be blissed out and feel better. The possibilities for people with taxing and sometimes life threatening illnesses such as PTSD, Anxiety, Autism, Depression, and Alcoholism are exciting. And some doctors claim that this could be a good psychotherapy practice even for people without severe mental illness, to help redirect and reinvigorate energy. The new mindset around these drugs and breakthroughs in a community that has seen the same tired medicine and practices for years could mark a new era in the mental health community.
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