Why MDMA Has the Potential to be Much More Than a Club Drug

February 1st 2015

A new and growing body of research on the effects of Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, a club drug more commonly known as MDMA, on PTSD patients has so far produced some compelling results. And for the more than 5 million Americans who suffer from the notoriously prickly and devastating disorder, that could mean relief on a massive scale. 

According to new research, marijuana could hold the potential for treating symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)––but what about other drugs?

Is there a precedent for using recreational drugs to treat PTSD?

In the realm of medicine, marijuana is and has been used widely by millions of Americans to stave off the advance of Alzheimer's disease, combat depression, and to ease anxiety, among other medical benefits. Last November, researchers concluded that cannabis could soothe the parts of the brain associated with the formation and holding of trauma, suggesting to some that marijuana could have better results than conventional PTSD medication. And so, in this climate, marked by generally shifting attitudes, slowly relaxing drug laws, and more advanced research technology, it's not surprising that scientists are exploring unorthodox treatment methods. What's more, they're happening upon some stunning findings.  

According to different studies conducted by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), the effects of MDMA on the brain of someone with PTSD hold significant potential for recovery. In a 20-person study from 2010, MAPS researchers found that a staggering 83 percent of patients who underwent MDMA-assisted psychotherapy were cured of symptoms, which, when weighed against the 25 percent cured with psychotherapy alone, is noteworthy. In a follow-up study two years later, a majority of those treated had remained symptom-free, suggesting that the drug could yield long-term benefits. 

According to one patient involved in a MAPS study, after taking the drug, "I felt relaxed and calm, and a complete peace came over me. Memories came up I was previously trying to ignore, but then as soon as I would let the memory come up I would have a wave of pleasure, so I think my body was telling me to accept the memories. I also felt I needed to take the positives out of everything, no matter what the situations is."

Without getting into too much science, MDMA basically acts to suppress the compartments of the brain––knwon as amygdala––that stop traumatic memories from entering the consciousness, therefore creating an unhealthy relationship between unprocessed memories of, say, stressful combat, and the rest of the consciousness. Rather than simply "blissing out" while on the drug, patients undergoing MDMA therapy are able to open a "discussion" with both the traumatic memories, and with the therapists in the room with them, who coach them through the experience in a safe and comfortable setting.

"[Patients] were neither overwhelmed by emotion nor numbed with it," Dr. Michael Mithoefer of MAPS, told USA Today. "The psychotherapy is still difficult and can still be painful, but they have a sense that they can do it," Mithoefer said. 

MAPS is currently undertaking an eight-year, $18.5 million plan to make MDMA FDA-approved for medical purposes. The substance is still classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance. 

Potential roadblocks 

Alternative treatments using things like MDMA or marijuana could provide relief to PTSD sufferers for whom the two FDA-approved selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) anti-depressants––sertrelene (Zoloft) or paroxetine (Paxil)––do not work. Other drugs like Xanax, Prozac, and Celexa, popular relaxants and anti-depressants are used for treatment as well. But studies show that patients on anti-depressants are more likely to relapse harder than those not taking them. Yet others have been shown to be just about as effective as a placebo for people suffering from multiple traumas or chronic PTSD.

But the road to legalizing MDMA––marijuana already has a good head start––will likely be a rocky one, as lobbyists pushing for legalization like MAPS are up against some of the most established, powerful interest groups around: Big Pharma. 

A study from a few years ago, conducted by the VA, showed that veterans with PTSD symptoms were twice as likely to be prescribed powerful painkillers known as opioids as those lacking mental-health issues. But there are problems: the issue with opioids like Vicodin, OxyContin, and Percocet, is that they can be incredibly addictive, especially in cases where mental health issues yield higher risk of addiction. Not surprisingly, in 2007, Purdue Pharma, which manufactures OxyContin, pled guilty to misleading the FDA, clinicians, and patients, about the dangerously addictive properties of the drug in aggressive marketing campaigns. 

But when it comes to PTSD, the numbers, so far, have still been troubling. 

A Wall Street Journal investigation from 2013 showed that in 2012, more than 50,000 veterans were treated by the VA for serious problems related to opioid use, which was more than double the numbers a decade ago. During that same time period, the number of VA patients grew by 30 percent. But there's a troubling link: since 1999, the number of opioid prescriptions written by the VA has increased a staggering 287 percent. And according to another VA study, opioids are the leading cause of accidental overdoses by VA-enrolled veterans. 

This problem could be more systemic than it appears. OxyContin, for example, still nets Purdue Pharma $3 million in annual sales, and if the Big Pharma lobbying pushbackagainst Marijuana has been any indication, MDMA is in for some rough waters ahead, as it directly challenges top pharmaceuticals used to treat PTSD. Companies like Pfizer, which makes Zoloft, and Abbott Laboratories, which makes Vicodin, and Purdue, are all heavy hitters in Washington. And according to records, they all pour thousands of dollars into the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, whose members provide funding for rehabilitation hospitals and health care, among other things. In the 2014 election cycle alone, the committee received nearly $1.9 million from the health industry. It's no surprise, then, that Big Pharma has a staked interest in keeping competitors off the market––even if they show promising, long-term results. 

The beneficial prospects of MDMA in the medical field are still being researched, and what's more, they could extend beyond PTSD treatment, like into family therapy. But as long as powerful interest groups are there to stall further federal consideration, any promising outcomes are tragically relegated to the peripheries of serious medicine.

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