A research study involving 90 participants determined that MDMA, commonly known as ecstasy or molly, when paired with talk therapy can help those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), The New York Times reported on Monday.
The study, which was obtained by the Times and has not yet been published, determined that two months after treatment, 67 percent of participants who received MDMA did not qualify for a PTSD diagnosis any more, compared with 32 percent who did not take the drug.
The research is expected to be published in Nature Medicine later this month and moves MDMA closer to getting Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorization for therapeutic use. The FDA would need to analyze another phase three trial showing the benefits of MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD with approval coming at the earliest in 2023.
The Times noted that MDMA taken without therapy did not necessarily result in improved PTSD symptoms.
“It’s not the drug — it’s the therapy enhanced by the drug,” Rick Doblin, senior author of the study and director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, told the Times.
The study found no serious adverse side effects among the participants who had MDMA, with minor side effects including nausea and loss of appetite.
Before taking MDMA or the placebo, the participants first had sessions with two trained therapists. Then, they underwent three eight-hour sessions once a month during which they received the drug or placebo.
The participants and therapists did not know whether participants took MDMA or the placebo. Most participants correctly guessed which they received, but this did not undermine the results or methodology, the newspaper noted.
Eighty therapists across 15 sites in the U.S., Canada and Israel collected the data on the 90 participants, who each had severe PTSD and were previously diagnosed, on average for more than 14 years. These participants included combat veterans, first responders and victims of sexual assault, mass shootings, domestic violence or childhood trauma.
“This is about as excited as I can get about a clinical trial,” Gul Dolen, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who was not involved in the study, told the Times. “There is nothing like this in clinical trial results for a neuropsychiatric disease.”
MDMA became known as ecstasy once it began being used on the dance floor instead of by therapists in the early 1980s, sparking its criminalization. Unlike MDMA, ecstasy or molly could include other risky substances and could be taken at higher, more unsafe doses.
Mental health experts told the Times that the study could lead to more studies on MDMA’s ability to treat other mental illnesses and on other psychedelics’ ability to treat other diseases. But others called for caution after the study, including Allen James Frances, a professor emeritus and the former chair of psychiatry at Duke University.
“All new treatments in medicine have always had a temporary halo effect by virtue of being new and by promising more than they can possibly deliver,” Frances told the newspaper.