Those soldiers and veterans who are struggling with chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD have some hope on the horizon. Research studies have shown that the drug 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine, better known as MDMA (or ecstasy), is having a remarkable effect on PTSD sufferers. The researchers and study participants say that they are finding relief from the gut wrenching anxiety and other symptoms associated with PTSD that have plagued them for years.
There is no doubt that PTSD is a huge problem among veterans. According to the Veterans Administration, 22 veteran suicides occur each day, though the rate is even higher among the nation’s younger veterans. It’s reasonable to conclude that PTSD does play a role in these tragic deaths, which makes the findings in these studies all the more exciting.
“With such encouraging data, including evidence of long-term effectiveness after only two or three MDMA-assisted psychotherapy sessions, there is now no doubt that this research should be expanded to larger clinical trials,” said Dr. Michael Mithoefer, the principle investigator of one of the studies.Another study, published in Biological Psychiatry, found that there is, in fact, a therapeutic use for MDMA, despite the government’s classification of the drug as a Schedule I narcotic, meaning that it has no medical value.
“We found that MDMA caused reduced blood flow in regions of the brain linked to emotion and memory. These effects may be related to the feelings of euphoria that people experience on the drug,” Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris of the Department of Medicine at Imperial College London told Psych Central.
Magnetic functional imaging scans found that communication was heightened between the amygdala and the hippocampus in those who used MDMA, something that doesn’t occur in those with PTSD.
“The findings suggest possible clinical uses of MDMA in treating anxiety and PTSD,” said Dr. David Nutt, a professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London and the project’s leader. However, he cautioned against drawing too many conclusions until further research can be done.
More research is something that the people at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) are actively doing. Currently, MAPS is running multiple studies on the use of MDMA within a clinical setting to help get past the barriers of anxiety that so often hinder a veteran’s recovery.
Contrary to popular belief, MDMA is not a new drug. It was synthesized over a century ago by Merck & Co., Inc.
Toxicity experiments were carried out in secret for the U.S. Army, according to some, to develop a chemical weapon or truth serum — possibly even the creation of a real life “Manchurian Candidate,” though there certainly is no evidence of this. However, declassified documents show that the military was interested in MDMA all the way back to the 1950s.
It wasn’t until the mid-1970s that the drug made its way into the world of psychotherapy, where it was well received. Some reports estimate that there were as many as 4,000 therapists across the country using it until it was banned in 1985. Psychiatrists who were using the drug in their practices say that the government took a major tool away from them, something that was highly effective with few side effects when used in the clinical setting.
“MDMA, when still legal, had openly been used to try to facilitate psychotherapy. Non-controlled, anecdotal reports indicated that it could be quite useful,” says Dr. David Reiss, a psychiatrist at Brattleboro Retreat in VT, within the Uniformed Services Program.
"MDMA, when still legal, had openly been used to try to facilitate psychotherapy. Non-controlled, anecdotal reports indicated that it could be quite useful."Dr. David Reiss
MAPS points out that the ecstasy available on the street does contain MDMA, but has been altered with other dangerous substances rendering it unsafe. Pure MDMA, they say, has been proven safe when used carefully under medical supervision and they are currently working toward making MDMA an FDA approved medication by 2021.
The most recent follow up studies on the use of MDMA in treating PTSD has found that patients who showed improvement in earlier studies continued to do well years later. Many no longer met the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis. The follow up also found that there was no evidence of harm and none of the study participants developed a substance abuse problem.
Still, with the mounting pile of evidence that pure MDMA is safe when used in a controlled setting, the government isn’t buying MDMA as medicine, at least not yet, something that Reiss says doesn’t always jive with good medicine.
“We are finally getting back to the point of consideration [sic] legitimate clinical uses for psychotropic agents that have, in essence, been “black-listed” – at times reasonably, often more for socio-political-economic reasons than good clinical judgment,” Reiss said in an email.
When asked, the VA was quick to dismiss the use of MDMA among veterans.
“Ecstasy is an illegal drug and [the] VA would not involve veterans in the use of such substances,” a spokesman said in an email to the Los Angeles Times.
The VA was reached for further comment on the matter, but has not answered these requests.
There are thousands of anecdotal reports of MDMA being a virtual miracle drug for PTSD sufferers who have tried various SSRIs, mood stabilizers, and anti-psychotic drugs, many of which are not intended to nor approved to treat PTSD. But because it is considered a dangerous narcotic, like marijuana, MDMA has forced desperate veterans and psychiatrists to obtain the drug illegally, something that could ruin the lives of everyone involved if caught.
Doctors could lose their licenses, veterans could lose their benefits, and all parties could end up in jail. That’s a huge price to pay for simply trying to treat a debilitating mental health condition, one that developed as a result of serving one’s country.
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