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MDMA 'outperforms' expectations in trial as medicine for PTSD

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MDMA could soon be used as a medicine, researchers say (Getty)

MDMA is better known as the dancefloor hallucinogen Ecstasy, but it may have important uses as a medicine, a new study has shown.

The research found that - when paired with therapy - MDMA significantly outperformed therapy alone when it came to dealing with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

The difference was particularly stark when it came to people dealing with traumas from early childhood, which are especially hard to deal with through therapy.

The researchers said: "MDMA may be particularly effective for enhancing treatment efficacy by improving a range of problems with self-experience that are associated with treatment resistance."

In particular, the drug may be able to help patients who have been traumatised during childhood confront their issues and deal with problems such as alexithymia - an inability to recognise emotions.

The study found people who took MDMA responded better to therapy. (Getty)
The study found people who took MDMA responded better to therapy. (Getty)

The researchers added: "Even though the MDMA-assisted therapy experimental sessions often occurred in relative silence as participants focus largely on their inner experience, MDMA-assisted therapy was associated with a significant improvement in emotional self-awareness and loss of alexithymia.

"This suggests that MDMA-assisted therapy can facilitate accessing painful memories and experiences that under ordinary conditions are too overwhelming and terrifying to confront, even in the presence of trained therapists."

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How did the study work?

Speaking to Vox, researcher Bessel Van derk Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score, Brain Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma, said he was initially reluctant to include people with childhood trauma in the study.

In the end, the study, which aims to legitimise the use of MDMA-assisted therapy, included 84% people with early childhood trauma.

The subjects were split into two groups, one of which had therapy, and one which had 36 hours of MDMA-assisted therapy.

Van der Kolk said: "We had the best outcome data here with MDMA that I’ve ever seen for any study."

Can psychedelic drugs really treat illnesses?

Research has shown that certain psychedelic drugs such as psilocybin (the ingredient in magic mushrooms) and MDMA can have an impact on problems such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

On LSD, the picture is less clear.

A small trial in 2018, funded by the Beckley Foundation and led by the 'first lady of LSD', Amanda Feilding, the Countess of Wemyss and March, saw 20 volunteers take the drug and fill in psychological questionnaires.

Feilding said: "I took it in the 1960s when it was legal and it improved my wellbeing."

A systematic review of studies into LSD in Frontiers in Psychiatry in 2020 found that the drug was a "potential therapeutic agent", with the strongest evidence around using LSD to treat alcoholism.

Will MDMA really be legal a medicine?

In 2017, the US Food and Drug Administration awarded the drug 'breakthrough status', so it could be fast-tracked as a potential treatment.

MDMA is often illegally sold on the street. (Getty)
MDMA is often illegally sold on the street. (Getty)

Studies have shown that patients with PTSD – where it's difficult to deal with painful memories – can overcome their traumas, long-term, with the aid of MDMA.

Several successful trials have shown the drug's potential with PTSD, and some believe approval could come this year.