A compound that is notorious as a popular drug of abuse at raves might someday be prescribed to help people with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Serious PTSD is not limited to war veterans. Survivors of accidents or domestic violence may also find that seemingly minor sensory triggers (sights, sounds, smells) can send them into a paralyzing re-experience of the traumatic event.
PTSD has not been easy to treat. Medications are often ineffective in preventing the dysfunctional reactions that might have been appropriate for the original life-threatening event but are out of place in a person’s current life. There are a number of nondrug approaches that can be helpful, including yoga. (You may be interested in an interview we did a few years ago on this topic with Dr. Bessel van der Kolk of Boston University.)
In the past few years, however, preliminary research has identified a compound that appears to be very promising in alleviating symptoms of PTSD (Mithoefer et al, Journal of Psychopharmacology, Jan. 2013; Oehen et al, Journal of Psychopharmacology, Jan. 2013; Yazar-Klosinski & Mithoefer, Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics, Feb. 2017).The agent is MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine), also known as ecstasy or molly.
Perhaps surprisingly, the FDA has designated this potential medication as a breakthrough therapy for PTSD. This clears the way for phase 3 trials to see how well the drugs may work for people who are overwhelmed by memories of a traumatic event.
Who Is Backing These Trials?
Even more unusual, the phase 3 trials will not be funded by a drug company planning to market MDMA as a new therapeutic compound. Instead, two studies have been designed by a nonprofit organization, Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). With the official FDA designation, the organization is now raising funds for trials to start in 2018). The “breakthrough therapy” designation means that the FDA will streamline its requirements to help reach definitive answers on how well this compound works.