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Will Ecstasy Be a Powerful Treatment for PTSD?

FDA has just designated MDMA, ecstasy, as a possible breakthrough therapy for PTSD. Trials will be streamlined for more rapid determination.

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.

Treating PTSD:

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.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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