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How MDMA is being used to treat PTSD | The Economist

MDMA, the active ingredient in the party drug ecstasy, is being touted as a game-changing treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. It is being trialled in America—and for one army veteran the drug has been a life-saver.

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In America around 22 military veterans kill themselves every day. John served in Iraq during the Second Gulf War. His experiences left him with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. The mental suffering has been so great but he was suicidal for eight years.

An estimated eight million Americans suffer with PTSD and war veterans are only a fraction of this number. It’s a public health disaster costing billions of dollars to treat. There are treatments available but the drugs prescribed are only successful in 20% of cases. For those who don’t respond to the available treatment there may be an alternative – MDMA – the active ingredient in the party drug ecstasy is being touted as a miracle cure for PTSD.

The FDA has labeled MDMA a breakthrough treatment and tests of the drug show that it’s highly effective. In a recent study over 60% of patients no longer met the clinical criteria for PTSD after the MDMA treatment. For John, conventional treatments hadn’t worked. He saw the trial as his last hope. For John the treatment was a revelation.

MDMA was used in psychotherapy in the 1970s but became popular as a party drug in the 1980s and was made illegal. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that the drug began scientific testing in America to treat PTSD. Testing is now at the final stage of FDA approval, where around three hundred subjects will participate. If this is successful then the drug could become a medicine.

Rick Doblin has been at the forefront of this research since the 1980s. An estimated 20% of former military personnel suffer with PTSD in America alone. The Department of Veteran Affairs spends about 400 million dollars annually on treating PTSD and other mental health conditions. When you take MDMA it floods the brain with hormones and neurotransmitters that evoke feelings of trust and well-being. Researchers say this allows patients to re-examine traumatic memories.

Like any drug MDMA has side effects and there’s a moderate risk of addiction, but it is less harmful than alcohol or tobacco. A small nonprofit is funding the trial as MDMA is not patentable – so big pharmaceutical companies have steered clear of the treatment as it will not make them money. For sufferers of PTSD this new treatment could be a lifesaver.

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