Taking the ecstasy drug MDMA may help people recover from psychologically damaging traumatic experiences, early research has found.
US scientists combined MDMA treatment with psychotherapy in an experimental pilot study that involved 22 military veterans, three firefighters and a police officer.
All had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) resulting from events they had experienced or witnessed during their service.
Participants were given doses of the drug that ranged between 30mg, 75mg and 125mg.
On average, people in the two higher dose groups experienced greater decreases in PTSD symptom severity than those in the low-dose group.
After two treatment sessions, 86% of participants in the 75mg group, 58% in the 125mg group and 29% in the 30mg group no longer met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD.
MDMA is the main active constituent of ecstasy, a recreational drug that induces feelings of euphoria and enhances sensory perception.
Both are classified as illegal Class A drugs in the UK, possession of which carries a maximum penalty of up to seven years imprisonment.
Lead researcher Dr Allison Feduccia, from the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies in Santa Cruz, California, said: “Our study suggests that MDMA might help augment the psychotherapeutic experiences and may have a role to play in the future treatment of PTSD. However, we would certainly not recommend that individuals try these drugs for the treatment of psychiatric disorders without the support from trained psychotherapists.”
MDMA was administered to the study participants during eight-hour long specially adapted psychotherapy sessions.
These were followed by an overnight stay in a clinic, seven days of telephone contact, and three further 90 minutes sessions of psychotherapy.
Side effects of the treatment included anxiety, headache, fatigue, muscle tension and insomnia, said the researchers writing in the journal The Lancet Psychiatry.
Temporary increases in suicidal thoughts were also reported. One participant with a history of suicide attempts had to be admitted to hospital, but later completed the study.
During the trial, neither the participants nor the clinicians knew how the doses of MDMA were being distributed.
Later participants were offered additional MDMA treatment and psychotherapy and this time were told what they were receiving.
A year after the end of the study 16 of the 26 participants were no longer classified as suffering from PTSD, while two had a renewed diagnosis.
Commenting on the research in the journal, professors Andrea Cipriani and Philip Cowen, from Oxford University, said recreational use of ecstasy raised numerous safety concerns including fatal toxicity, long-term mental impairment and brain damage.
But they added: “With rigorous sourcing of MDMA and close medical and psychological supervision, its short-term use in carefully selected patients with PTSD seems safe.”
Dr Michael Bloomfield, clinical lecturer in general psychiatry at University College London, who described PTSD as a “potentially devastating condition”, said: “This new, well conducted study adds to fascinating research which suggests that MDMA may be a candidate drug in a future era of medicine-assisted psychotherapy.”
However he said more research was needed to “tease out” the beneficial effects of MDMA.
He warned: “Survivors of trauma who are experiencing PTSD should not try this on themselves because of the risks associated with street ecstasy and the need for good quality psychiatric care including psychotherapy in recovering from PTSD.”