The psychedelic drug MDMA can reduce symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, researchers reported in a new study published Thursday.
The company sponsoring the research said it plans to apply later this year for approval from US authorities to market the drug, also known as ecstasy, as a treatment for PTSD when combined with talk therapy.
“This is the first innovation in the treatment of PTSD in more than two decades. And it’s significant because I think it will also make other innovation possible,” said Amy Emerson, CEO of MAPS Public Benefit Corporation, the firm that funded the study.
This year, Australia became the first country to allow psychiatrists to prescribe MDMA and psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms. The drugs have gained greater cultural acceptance in the United States, in part due to the work of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a nonprofit advocacy group.
In the new study, researchers measured symptoms in 104 people with PTSD randomly chosen to be given MDMA or a placebo pill over three sessions, each one month apart. Both groups received talk therapy.
Common side effects in the MDMA group were muscle stiffness, nausea, decreased appetite, and sweating. But only one person in that group dropped out of the study.
After treatment, 86% of the MDMA group showed improvement on the standard assessment of PTSD compared to 69% of the placebo group. The assessment measures symptoms such as nightmares, sudden traumatic memories, and insomnia.
At the end of the study, 72% of people in the MDMA group no longer met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, compared with 48% of those in the placebo group.
“The results they got are very exciting,” said Barbara Rothbaum, who directs the Emory Veterans Health Care Program in Atlanta. She was not involved in the research, which was published in the journal Nature Medicine.
PTSD can also be treated with other medications or talk therapy.
“They are very effective, but nothing is 100% effective,” Rothbaum said. “So we definitely need more treatment options.”
Before MDMA can be prescribed in the United States, it would need to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and reclassified by the DEA. Currently, MDMA is classified as a Schedule 1 drug, on par with heroin, and is considered to “currently have no accepted medical use and a high potential to be addictive.”
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