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MDMA, or Ecstasy, Shows Promise as a PTSD Treatment

Scientists test how pharmaceutical-grade MDMA combines with psychotherapy to help patients with a severe form of PTSD

The first time Lori Tipton tried MDMA, she was skeptical it would make a difference.

“I really was, at the beginning, very nervous,” Tipton said.

MDMA is the main ingredient in the club drug known as ecstasy or molly. But Tipton wasn’t taking pills sold on the street to get high. She was trying to treat her post-traumatic stress disorder by participating in a clinical trial.

After taking a dose of pure MDMA, Tipton lay in a quiet room with two specially trained psychotherapists. They sat next to her as she recalled some of her deepest traumas, such as discovering her mother’s body after Tipton’s mother killed two people and then herself in a murder-suicide.

“In the embrace of MDMA,” Tipton said, she could revisit that moment without the usual terror and panic. “I was able to find such empathy for myself.”

Scientists are testing how pharmaceutical-grade MDMA can be used in combination with psychotherapy to help patients with a severe form of PTSD that has not responded to other treatments. Unlike street drugs, which may be adulterated and unsafe, researchers use a pure, precisely dosed form of the drug.

MDMA is not yet available as a treatment for PTSD outside of clinical trials. But proponents are aiming for approval by the Food and Drug Administration, which granted breakthrough therapy status to MDMA-assisted psychotherapy in 2017.

Researchers are conducting Phase 3 clinical trials at more than a dozen sites. Clinicians who treat PTSD are hopeful the next round of trials will show that MDMA treatment is an effective option to relieve patient suffering.

“The problem is we haven’t had a new drug to treat PTSD in over 17 years,” said Dr. Sue Sisley, a physician and president of the Scottsdale Research Institute, based in Arizona. “There are certain illnesses that are just intractable and not responsive to traditional therapy, and we need to start thinking more broadly.”

But MDMA is a Schedule I controlled substance, which means it currently has no accepted medical use and has a “high potential for abuse” (something that MDMA’s therapeutic proponents dispute). Because of that designation, the current research trials are privately funded by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS.

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