U.K. research shows MDMA-assisted therapy can help people with severe PTSD

With MDMA, patients can revisit and process memories of traumatic experiences


MDMA triggers the release of feel-good chemicals in the brain. Photo by portokalis/iStock/Getty Images Plus.


A new study indicates that people with serious PTSD may find relief in psychotherapy augmented by MDMA.

U.K. researchers also report that the “potential therapeutic benefit” from the synthetic substance comes with “minimal” physical and mental risks.

The authors say that their study adds to the literature about MDMA-assisted psychotherapy in the reduction of PTSD symptoms.

PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder is a serious mental-health concern. The condition occurs after a person experiences a traumatic event like sexual assault and violence.

In addition, the disorder affects people who witness distressing incidents like crime, disasters, and wars.

Moreover, the disorder displays in a variety of psychological symptoms like anxiety, negative moods, and terrifying flashbacks.

Talk heals people

The American Psychiatric Association explains online that psychotherapy essentially involves “talk therapy”.

“Psychotherapy is often used in combination with medication to treat mental health conditions,” the association notes.

As part of the U.K. research, the authors note that psychotherapy is first-line management for PTSD in their country.

“There is good evidence for the efficacy of a range of psychotherapies for the treatment of PTSD,” they wrote.

MDMA or “3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine” releases feel-good chemicals in the brain. On the street, MDMA goes by the names “ecstasy” or “molly”. A number of people use pills containing the chemical as recreational drug.

“In those affected by PTSD, excess fear and aversion may impair access to traumatic memories,” the researchers wrote.

And even if they recall those memories, “associated states of hyper-arousal or dissociation may prevent psychological resolution”.

MDMA, however, provides the capability for “moderating fear responses”.

As a result, MDMA may augment psychotherapy “by inducing a psychological state more conducive to accessing and processing trauma”.

In simple terms, a person may be more able to revisit traumatic memories with MDMA.

By doing so, the individual can work out feelings associated with these memories.

Steps before MDMA becomes legal

The U.K. study goes by the title “A comparison of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy to non-assisted psychotherapy in treatment-resistant PTSD: A systematic review and meta-analysis”.

As the title states, the research involved a statistical analysis of a number of clinical trials for people with hard-to-treat conditions.

The paper, principally written by Benjamin JG Illingworth and Declan J. Lewis, appeared online on December 20, 2020 in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.

Also, the research group led by Illingworth and Lewis wrote that MDMA-assisted psychotherapy has a “largely favourable safety profile”.

They note that ongoing Phase 3 trials will provide evidence on the substance’s efficacy and safety “warrant an application for a marketing authorisation”.

As an example, in the U.S., regulators require phase 3 clinical trials before approving a new drug for public use.

In May 2020, CannCentral reported about similar trials underway in the U.S., Canada, and Israel.

The trials administered by the California-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies involve MDMA in psychotherapy.

A MAPS media release at the time talked about encouraging results from an interim analysis of data.

Specifically, the analysis “revealed a 90% or greater probability that the trial will detect statistically significant results when all participants have been treated”.

MAPS founder and executive director Rick Doblin noted that this represents the “most powerful evidence yet” that MDMA-assisted psychotherapy could help people with PTSD.

Follow Carlito Pablo on Twitter at @carlitopablo

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