Can ecstasy combat the effects of PTSD? | News | DW | 02.05.2018
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Can ecstasy combat the effects of PTSD?

US researchers have said drug tests conducted with soldiers suffering from trauma show signs of promise. Drug regulators say MDMA, administered with psychological supervision, represents a "breakthrough therapy."

Researchers in the United States have announced that recent drug tests conducted with soldiers, firefighters and one police officer suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) "could enhance the benefits of psychotherapy." The results of treatment, which involved the use of the euphoria-inducing drug MDMA, commonly known as ecstasy, accompanied by psychological therapy, were published in the medical journal Lancet Psychiatry on Tuesday.

Read more: War’s hidden legacy: PTSD

The tests were conducted over the course of one year and consisted of administering three different dosages of a pure form of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) to 26 service members suffering from PTSD, every few months for a year. Researchers emphasized the drug therapy was accompanied by close psychological counseling.

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'Significant decrease' in symptoms

The 26 service members who took part in the tests were not told whether they were being given 30, 75 or 125 milligram doses of the drug. Scientists reported that those receiving higher doses showed the greatest progress, with 86 percent of those in the 75 mg group no longer showing symptoms of PTSD one month after their second dose. Among those in the 125 mg group the number was 58 percent and it was 29 percent in the 30 mg group.

A sizeable drop in PTSD symptoms was also registered among those in the 30 mg group after their dosages were increased to 100-125 mg in a second leg of the trial. Scientists claim that after one year of testing all 26 service members showed "significantly decreased" symptoms of PTSD. Sixteen of the participants no longer met criteria for PTSD treatment after one year.    

Read more: More Bundeswehr soldiers coming home with PTSD

Flash Galerie Clubs in Berlin (picture alliance / dpa)

Drugs like MDMA are most commonly associated with all-night raves and the club scene, not least Berlin's

May cause side effects

Scientists say that drug treatment did, however, cause some side effects including anxiety, sleeplessness and periodic increases in suicidal thoughts. Experts Andrea Cipriani and Philip Cowen of the University of Oxford commented in the Lancet that their own studies with some recreational ecstasy users showed these often had extreme mood drops in the days after taking the drug. The two added that such a side effect could be of "particular concern in individuals vulnerable to suicidal feelings." 

The US team conducting the test claims the study represents a "novel approach to pharmacotherapy" but warned against those with psychological disorders rushing out to purchase ecstacy on their own. Last year, the US Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) approved MDMA-assisted psychotherapy to combat PTSD, fast-tracking it for review and possible approval. At the time, the USFDA called it a "breakthrough therapy."

A debilitating affliction

PTSD is common among soldiers and other service personnel who experience trauma in the line of duty. PTSD can be extremely debilitating, causing flashbacks and recurring nightmares, as well as triggering sudden fear and anger. It is also a leading cause of suicide among servicemen and women. 

The tests, which were conducted in South Carolina, did not include control groups, nor compare MDMA with other existing drug treatments but were instead conducted to determine the safety of the treatment.

js/msh (AFP, Reuters)

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