Ecstasy closer to approval for PTSD treatment?

It’s an exciting time for research into treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. On Monday, we wrote about a Fort Hood study that found that up to 50 percent of active duty soldiers who went through a 12-session program of talk therapy recovered from their PTSD symptoms, many in a matter of weeks. Now, some researchers are saying a popular — and currently illegal — party drug may improve results for those with chronic, and previously treatment resistant PTSD.

The cognitive processing therapy used in the Fort Hood study has been used to treat civilians for decades, but military PTSD is often more difficult to tame. Combat veterans typically have seen or endured multiple traumatic events, and active duty service members live in a world full of potential triggers, like artillery ranges and motor pools. In the Fort Hood study, combat veterans did not recover at the same high rate as civilians and further studies are planned at Fort Hood in hopes of raising the recovery rate.

At the same time, research into the use of MDMA, commonly known as the party drug Ecstasy, is also showing promise when used in conjunction with PTSD talk therapy. In November, the Food and Drug Administration gave the green light for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies’ MDMA trial to move to Phase 3 research, the final step before the illegal drug’s potential approval as a prescription drug.

In a just-completed stage of the trial, two-thirds of patients recovered from PTSD based on screenings after using the drug. About one-quarter of the study’s 107 trial participants were combat veterans, who told reporters of life transforming changes.

One Army veteran told Stars and Stripes that after taking MDMA and undergoing eight hours of “difficult psychotherapy…the deepest traumas of his deployment rose to the surface.”

According to the article, “MDMA accesses parts of the brain altered by PTSD and floods them with serotonin —  a natural chemical associated with feelings of trust, bonding and well-being. That allows patients to think about their experiences in a more positive way.”

Leaders at the Department of Veterans Affairs have cast a jaundiced look at the MDMA trials. Dr. John H. Krystal, the clinical neuroscience division director at VA’s National Center for PTSD, told Stars and Stripes: “We are quite concerned that clinically prescribed MDMA might contribute to the risk for MDMA addiction.”

In addition to MDMA, recent PTSD studies have looked how marijuana, nerve blockers, high blood pressure medicine and even a form of shock therapy may aid recovery.

Alan Peterson, the co-director of the Fort Hood study and head of the STRONG STAR Consortium, a multi-institutional research group funded by the Defense Department and based at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, said that it’s unlikely research will uncover a single “silver bullet” that will solve PTSD for all people.

Peterson said it’s possible that drugs or medicine can set the stage for talk therapies like cognitive processing therapy, relaxing patients and putting them in a favorable mindset.

But drugs alone won’t fix the problem. “Somehow you have to figure out a way to work through that memory,” he said.