Drug Therapy and PTSD: A Feeling of Ecstasy?


Over the past few decades, there has been a large increase in interest in exploring treatments for mental illness. Along with marijuana, ecstasy has been explored and researched for years as a potential treatment for people with PTSD. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has stated that ecstasy may serve as a new “breakthrough therapy” for people with PTSD and approved further research on the effects of ecstasy on mental illness (Wan, 2017).

For people with PTSD, sensory traits (such as smells or tastes) can trigger the return of traumatic memories and emotion. This distress can result in difficulties in sleeping, problems with concentration, self-destructive behaviors, and high levels of anxiety (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Imperial College London’s neuropsychopharmacologist, David Nutt, says “The disabling element of PTSD is the fact that when the memory starts, the emotions completely override you and overwhelm the brain.” However, studies conducted on the effects of ecstasy suggest that MDMA can decrease the emotional response to the memory, thereby allowing people to relive their trauma in a more relaxed state.

Iraq veteran, Nigel McCourry remembers “I was engaged in a fight every day, whether it was gunshots or bombs blowing up next to me or landmines. It was the most intense experience of my life.” After returning to the states, he felt that little had changed: “It didn’t matter if it was a year or four years or six years after coming back from Iraq, there was no sense of separation of time. The experience was so fresh that I was constantly reliving it. I was alive in it.” Years later, McCourry participated in a study on MDMA-assisted psychotherapy and was amazed by how quickly it made a difference. After years of insomnia and nightmares, he was suddenly able to sleep through the night. After two years he felt that a “huge healing event had taken place,” because he finally “had this sense of separation from the experiences of Marine combat.”

Advocates for this type of treatment will point out that the main difference between pure MDMA and street variations of ecstasy is that the latter is often mixed with other harmful substances. MDMA itself is not without side effects. “I think it’s a dangerous substance,” says Andrew Parrott, a psychology professor at Swansea University in Wales who spent years researching the harmful effects of MDMA (Welch, 2017). In its purest form, MDMA can lead to nausea, chills, sweating, muscle cramping, and blurred vision. Overdose can also occur, with symptoms including high blood pressure, faintness, panic attacks and in severe cases, loss of consciousness and seizures (Sullum, 2017).

The most recent research done on drug therapy for those with PTSD have shown to be relatively positive but not without potential damage. Experimentation with new possible drug treatments has been growing and can lead to real breakthroughs. While research on the effects of MDMA on mental illnesses is ongoing, it is important to acknowledge the risk factors that come from this treatment option.

References:

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

Kupferschmidt, Kai. (2017, August 28). All clear for the decisive trial of ecstasy in PTSD patients. http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/08/all-clear-decisive-trial-ecstasy-ptsd-patients

Sullum, J. (2017). Enlisting Marijuana and MDMA to Fight PTSD. Reason, 49(6), 32.

Wan, W. (2017, August 26). Ecstasy could be ‘breakthrough’ therapy for soldiers, others suffering from PTSD. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/ecstasy-could-be-breakthrough-therapy-for-soldiers-others-suffering-from-ptsd/2017/08/26/009314ca-842f-11e7-b359-15a3617c767b_story.html?utm_term=.a4cd1191ea40

Welch, A. (2017, August 31). FDA designates MDMA as “breakthrough therapy” for PTSD. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/fda-designates-mdma-as-breakthrough-therapy-for-ptsd/


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