Ecstasy for Alcoholism? World's First Trials of MDMA to Treat Booze Addiction to Begin

Doctors in Bristol are set to begin the world’s first clinical study into the use of MDMA to treat alcohol addiction.

Researchers are testing whether a few doses of the drug, in conjunction with psychotherapy, could help patients overcome addiction more effectively than conventional treatments. The small trial was granted ethical approval a few weeks ago and the team expects to give the first dose of MDMA, the active ingredient in ecstasy pills, within the next two months.

Ben Sessa, a clinical psychiatrist on the trial and senior research fellow at Imperial College London said: “We know that MDMA works really well in helping people who have suffered trauma and it helps to build empathy. Many of my patients who are alcoholics have suffered some sort of trauma in their past and this plays a role in their addiction.”

Twenty patients, recruited through the recreational drug and alcohol services in Bristol, will be given the drug in capsule form during two supervised treatment sessions. The participants will be heavy drinkers – typically consuming the equivalent of five bottles of wine a day – who have relapsed into alcoholism repeatedly after trying other forms of treatment.

“After 100 years of modern psychiatry our treatments are really poor,” said Sessa, speaking at the Breaking Convention conference in London. “The chances of relapse for these patients are really high – 90% at three years. No one has ever given MDMA to treat alcoholism before.”

After the patients have undergone physical detox, they will be given two standard therapy sessions without the drug, followed by an all-day session where they are given a high dose of MDMA in capsule form. During this session they will spend some time talking to a therapist and some time lying down with an eyemask in a state of quiet meditation.

Sessa said the only thing delaying the start of the trial was the delivery of the drug to the hospital after a lengthy manufacturing and testing process, designed to ensure the drug is 99.99% pure.

“We earmarked £3,500 for our 12g of MDMA [but] we are now looking at £62,000 for the 12g,” he said.

Sessa said a misconception is that the treatment is “all about the drug”. “It’s using drugs to enhance the relationship between the therapist and the patient, and it allows us to dig down and get to the heart of the problems that drive long-term mental illness,” he said.

The trial, led by scientists at Imperial College London, will aim to assess the safety of the treatment and give a preliminary indication of whether the therapy might hold therapeutic promise.

It comes at a time of rapidly increasing interest in the use of psychedelics in medicine. One US study published last year produced remarkable results when people with advanced cancer who were suffering depression and anxiety were treated with a single high dose of psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms. In 80% of cases, the patients’ condition improved and the effects endured for six to eight months.

Another US team, which has now been given approval to push ahead with a phase-three trial, found that MDMA-enhanced therapy was highly effective for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in veterans. In Britain, several teams are investigating the potential of using ketamine to erase addiction-related memories.

“This is not a fringe subject, it’s careful, methodical, extremely rigorous science,” said Sessa.

Others were less enthusiastic, however. Ed Day, a senior clinical lecturer at the National Addiction Centre at King’s College London, said that a priority should be restoring funding to frontline addiction services. “Psychedelics are fascinating substances, and have a range of effects that we are nowhere near understanding,” he said.

“Research would be welcome, but it is likely that the benefits would come in treating problems such as post-traumatic stress or severe depression, rather than drug problems per se. I wouldn’t want this issue to distract from the real problems facing drug and alcohol treatment services in England at the moment.”


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