For many returning veterans, dealing with some form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has become a way of life. Often, it manifests as manageable depression or anxiety, but in some cases the symptoms can become too much to cope with, leaving veterans like C. J. Hardin, who served in three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, unable to manage the disorder and maintain an ordinary life.
“Nothing worked for me, so I put aside the idea that I could get better,” said Hardin. “I just pretty much became a hermit in my cabin and never went out.” Hardin eventually found himself divorced, struggling with alcoholism, and living in a cabin alone. Unlike so many veterans, Hardin even proactively pursued every form of treatment available to him, including psychotherapy, group therapy and nearly a dozen different medications.
In 2013, however, he found a course of treatment that seemed to actually work. “It changed my life,” he told the New York Times, “It allowed me to see my trauma without fear or hesitation and finally process things and move forward.”
A recent study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology showed patients being treated with the same drug that helped Hardin were met with equally incredible results. Patients reported a fifty-six percent decrease in the severity of their symptoms on average and a full two-thirds of the study’s participants no longer met the criteria for having PTSD upon the conclusion of treatment.
There’s just one problem. The drug that’s proving to be so effective is Ecstasy.
Despite Ecstasy’s reputation as an illegal party drug, the primary chemical ingredient in it, MDMA, has demonstrated itself to be sufficiently effective to warrant the Federal Food and Drug Administration to grant permission for a large-scale clinical trial. If the results of this clinical trial coincide with the incredible improvements demonstrated by smaller scale studies, it could be the final step before Ecstasy can be prescribed as a legal drug and medical treatment.
“I’m cautious but hopeful,” said Dr. Charles R. Marmar, the head of psychiatry at New York University’s Langone School of Medicine and a leading PTSD researcher. “If they can keep getting good results, it will be of great use. PTSD can be very hard to treat. Our best therapies right now don’t help 30 to 40 percent of people. So we need more options.” Marmar went on to warn of the drug’s potential for abuse and the dangers of prolonged use.
Previous studies have included administering three doses of MDMA under the guidance of a psychiatrist, as a part of a broader course of treatment that included therapy. Most patients underwent twelve weeks of psychotherapy, which included three eight-hour sessions in which they were given MDMA and asked to lay on a futon and listen to soothing music.
“The medicine allows them to look at things from a different place and reclassify them,” said Ms. Mithoefer, a psychiatric nurse. “Honestly, we don’t have to do much. Each person has an innate ability to heal. We just create the right conditions.”
The vast improvement patients in these studies have experienced has prompted Dr. Michael C. Mithoefer, who has run the previous studies, to apply for what is called “breakthrough status” with the FDA. This would permit the fast tracking of the drug approval process, making it available to the market as early as 2021.
“We can sometimes see this kind of remarkable improvement in traditional psychotherapy, but it can take years, if it happens at all,” Dr. Mithoefer told the Times. “We think it works as a catalyst that speeds the natural healing process.”
Of course, the treatment is not without its concerned detractors. Some fear prescribing MDMA could lead to increased abuse of the drug, as evidenced by recent concerns about opioid addiction in the form of prescription pain medications like Percocet and oxycodone in the United States.
“It sends the message that this drug will help you solve your problems, when often it just creates problems,” said Andrew Parrott, a psychologist at Swansea University in Wales who has studied the brains of chronic Ecstasy users. “This is a messy drug we know can do damage.”
MDMA works by releasing chemicals in the brain that promote a sense of well-being and trust for those around you. It also blocks your brain’s ability to experience anxiety and fear, which can be overwhelming for those struggling with post traumatic stress. While these effects can be extremely beneficial in a clinical environment, their ability to make the user feel good also dramatically increases the chances that the drug could be abused.
Because current anti-depressants have proven largely ineffective as a means to combat PTSD and the new drugs on the horizon don’t seem to offer a marked improvement over existing prescriptions, for many, MDMA represents an opportunity to return to normal life. Currently, the drug is considered a Schedule 1 narcotic, barring any legal use of the substance, but a successful large-scale trial could be sufficient to reverse the drug’s 1985 scheduling.
Previous trials saw the treatment of one hundred and thirty PTSD patients. The Phase 3 study, which will be funded by The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, aims to treat two hundred and thirty more in the coming year.
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