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80% of Post-Traumatic Stress Sufferers Lost Symptoms After Taking Ecstasy -- Study's Results

Study's conclusion -- new drug could "offer sufferers a vital window with reduced fear responses where psychotherapy can take effect."

After MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, over 80% of sufferers from post traumatic stress disorder no longer met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, as compared to only 25% in the control group. This study, just released, was conducted by Michael Mithoefer, M.D. (and his colleagues) and is published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Psychopharmacology.

According to the media release, MDMA could "offer sufferers a vital window with reduced fear responses where psychotherapy can take effect." MDMA is also called Ecstasy.

On the killing fields of 1914-19, the malady being studied was called "shell shock"; in World War Two, "battle fatigue" or "combat exhaustion"; and now, in the era of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, PTSD. It can be caused, for example, by experiencing random explosions, being wounded, or seeing buddies torn open or killed.

The syndrome is hard to treat and can last for years after a soldier climbs out of a trench or an armored personnel carrier.The challenge in therapy is to encourage repeated recall of the trauma ("familiarization") without inducing psychic numbing or just hysteria. Of course it helps to be in a psychotherapist's quiet office, away from any battlefield or dangerous city. But PTSD tends to stay with a person. He may bring it to bed (as partners discover when a returning vet wakes up screaming), to the highway, to workplaces, perhaps to any argument or frustration or hearing of loud sounds. What to do?

The problem is fear--pervasive, invasive, recurrent fear. What MDMA does, according to the research, is to provide at least a brief experience of what life feels like without the aftermath of trauma. In this state, learning can occur. The political system that conducts wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan used to "just say no" to all psychoactive drugs, but now it needs something to help veterans of those wars who suffer PTSD. In this situation, MDMA might be officially repurposed. What was for a while mainly a party drug at raves is now moving back toward (if not yet into) the therapy office.

 I once heard a wise scientist say, “in God we trust; all others please bring data.” The 14-page Journal of Psychopharmacology article is about data, not gut feelings.

According to this study of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy on chronic PTSD sufferers, the substance helped by creating a “window” in which participants could, with a much reduced level of fear, revisit the  trauma. The learning that could thus occur is about the trauma itself, which fear had prevented the sufferer from mastering. The substance is administered once, is not addictive, and thus causes no dependence.

Facts about MDMA have been obscured, first by panic about the rave culture, then by a well-publicized university study that actually administered a different substance, and then by propaganda associated with the “war on drugs.”

If MDMA is shown to cause more harm than good as a medicine, it would not be used. But that is the opposite of what the study showed. To quote the research paper, “there were no drug-related serious adverse effects, adverse neurocognitive effects, or clinically significant blood pressure increases.” What MDMA appears to offer is a way not merely of producing temporary good feelings or of masking symptoms of PTSD, as in the use of selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, but of facilitating effective psychotherapy.

In the town where I live,  we had an “Welcome Home” event at which about 700 local citizens heard vets read poetry they’d just written in a private workshop, poetry about their real experience as soldiers. Some of these vets had PTSD. Before speaking one vet dumped a heap of prescription bottles out on the floor. “Anybody want to party?” he asked ironically, adding he was taking the pills to keep other people safe.

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