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Exploring therapeutic effects of MDMA on post-traumatic stress

Researchers and some independent therapists are studying whether banned drug MDMA — found in Ecstasy — may help those with PTSD.

March 15, 2014|By Alan Zarembo

"Once his soul was open, it didn't fully close again," she said. "Each time, I feel that he was closer to his truest nature."

Tim Amoroso, a 24-year-old Army veteran, was tormented by memories of looking for body parts after a suicide bomber killed five U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. He said antidepressants and anti-anxiety pills prescribed by doctors at the VA provided little relief.

Now a student at the University of New Hampshire, Amoroso bought Ecstasy at a music festival last summer and later took the drug with a friend watching over him.

"I feel like I found meaning again," Amoroso said. "My life wasn't as bad as I thought it was."


The new research into MDMA's therapeutic potential largely stems from the efforts of Rick Doblin, a former hippie who earned a doctorate in public policy at Harvard University to help his quest for drug legalization.

Doblin's nonprofit Multidisciplinary Assn. for Psychedelic Studies, which runs on donations, has sponsored all research into clinical uses of MDMA. Doblin hopes the drug follows the same path as marijuana, whose approval for medical purposes led to broad public acceptance.

In 2004, South Carolina psychiatrist Michael Mithoefer launched a clinical trial involving 20 patients suffering from PTSD — mostly female victims of sexual violence who had unsuccessfully tried other therapies.

Ten of the 12 who received MDMA during two sessions improved so much that they no longer qualified for a PTSD diagnosis. Patients who received a placebo fared worse. A follow-up study published in 2012 found that, for the most part, the patients who improved continued to do well.

Mithoefer is now conducting a study looking at whether MDMA has a similar effect on veterans, firefighters and police officers afflicted with PTSD.

One participant is a 57-year-old retired Army major who has struggled with memories of a young soldier killed in an ambush in Iraq. The major hadn't been able to talk much about it in earlier sessions without the drug.

"The kid, he'd shown me pictures of his young kids and wife and all that," the soldier said in a videotaped therapy session. "To get to know someone and trust him, and now you know he's dead — it's tough."

In subsequent testing, the severity of the major's PTSD declined, the researchers said. The study's full results on 24 subjects are expected late next year.

Among other studies, a trial set to begin at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center will test MDMA's ability to combat social anxiety in high-functioning autistic adults. Bay Area researchers also are planning to conduct a study of whether MDMA can reduce anxiety in patients facing deadly illnesses.

Experts not involved in trials said they haven't seen enough data to draw conclusions. They noted that in a Swiss study funded by Doblin's group, the drug did not significantly reduce symptoms of PTSD.

With a budget of $2 million a year, Doblin's group doesn't have the money to pay for the wide-scale trials needed for scientific clarity and FDA approval. His hope is that the government will step in with funding.

Doblin has met with officials at the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs, but so far the government has kept its distance.

"Ecstasy is an illegal drug and [the] VA would not involve veterans in the use of such substances," a spokesman said in an email.

Special correspondent L.J. Williamson contributed to this report.

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