A surprise treatment better known as an illegal street drug may soon be on the way to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The drug in question, MDMA, which is best known as a party drug, contains significant chemical resemblances to both hallucinogens and stimulants and is sometimes found in ecstasy pills.
But now researchers want to flip the narrative on MDMA and put its psychological-soothing properties to good use in the fight against traumatic stress.
Currently, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a research group, is toiling with the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to line up clinical trials to test MDMA among large populations. So far, the evidence is compelling.
“We’ve already demonstrated with our early Phase 2 trials that MDMA-assisted psychotherapy can be extremely helpful and have minimal risks,” Brad Burge, director of communications and marketing at MAPS, told Inverse. “Now all the FDA needs is to see those same results, or remotely close to those same results, replicated in a larger number of patients.”
To date, the MDMA-associated drug trials have received funding from several sources, including $5 million from Dr. Bronner’s soap company. CEO David Bronner believes MDMA treatment therapy holds significant promise.
“We’re going to help alleviate the pain of a suffering population, and, generally, I’m talking about veterans, but also individuals who are traumatized by rape and other forms of violence,” Bronner told Inverse. “That’s the immediate goal. MDMA is such an incredible adjunct to therapy, and there’s such an incredible need for it.”
The pivot from street drug to accepted adjunct therapy may simply require a new way of thinking about substances like MDMA, noted Burge.
“It can become a sort of snowball effect, or at least that is the goal,” said Burge. “People will notice that we’re doing top-level research and that we’re moving very quickly towards FDA approval. All we need is that funding.”
Easing PTSD Symptoms
A small study released in April found that MDMA-assisted therapy resulted in a drastic reduction in PTSD symptoms, according to findings appearing in the journal Nature. In that study, about 67 percent of individuals with a previous diagnosis of PTSD experienced a drop-off in symptoms significant enough to clear them of the disorder after two to three sessions of MDMA-assisted treatment.
The therapy opens up a range of applications for thousands of individuals, because about 8 percent of the population is likely to suffer from PTSD at some point in their lives and a high number of war veterans suffer from the traumatic disorder.
Researchers believe that the release of hormones when a person takes MDMA, including oxytocin and prolactin, help improve their mental functioning.
For Bronner, the $5 million donation for phase-3 trials is just one way to help improve the wellbeing of individuals who may be struggling with mental illness.
“It’s up to ethical companies, individuals, and philanthropists to step up and kind of do what was done for the abortion pill — which was similar in a way where it was just too spicy for any company, and it was brought to market through nonprofit donations,” said Bronner. “There’s the potential to help a lot of people here, which makes it even more incumbent that those actors help make it happen.”
Ultimately, the window on drugs that were once considered taboo appears to be opening.
“I think there seems to be a broad-based awakening about both cannabis and psychedelic medicine that is chipping away at the unfounded hysteria surrounding those drugs,” Bronner said. “Each drug is a complex universe unto itself, and there are therapeutic allocations.”
“People are starting to understand that when a certain drug is used correctly, then it’s not a big deal. They don’t need to be afraid of it.”
Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.