MDMA: From Party Drug to PTSD Treatment

MDMA-assisted psychotherapy is being studied as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

More commonly known as ecstasy or Molly, 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) is a recreational psychedelic drug used most frequently at dance parties, raves, music festivals, and the like.

MDMA produces a profound euphoric effect resulting in high abuse potential, which ultimately led the Drug Enforcement Administration to classify it as a Schedule I substance.

The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) was founded in 1986 to research the medicinal utility of psychedelic substances. One of the projects MAPS has been working on is studying MDMA-assisted psychotherapy as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) caused by sexual assault, violent crimes, war, and other trauma.

When given therapeutically, MDMA increases feelings of trust and compassion towards others without the vivid hallucinations seen with other psychedelics like lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and psilocybin, the active agent in psychedelic mushrooms.

MAPS makes a clear distinction between pure MDMA and illicit substances that can be found on the street under names such as Molly, ecstasy, and others, which all may contain varying amounts of MDMA. Pure MDMA lacks the impurities often used as additives to stretch profits in the manufacture of illicit substances, which can make street versions of MDMA unpredictable and fatal.

Early studies found that 83% of patients with chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD had significant reductions in their PTSD symptoms when treated with MDMA-assisted psychotherapy compared with placebo.

MAPS recently concluded the last of its phase 2 clinical trials of MDMA use in patients with chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD from any cause. Across all 8 of the trials, 136 patients were treated with MDMA for PTSD, and MAPS plans to conduct meta-analyses once final evaluations of the data are complete.

In terms of next steps, MAPS is fundraising nearly $20 million dollars to support phase 3 clinical trials of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. It's aiming for the FDA to approve MDMA as a prescription drug in 2021.