Not just for raves: MDMA could help trauma patients overcome painful memories

MDMA (methylenedioxymethamphetamine) is famous as the active ingredient in the rave drug Ecstasy. For this reason since 1985 the US federal government has been banned MDMA as a dangerous drug. But interest is rising in its potential in scientific community. The substances sold on the street as Ecstasy do often contain MDMA, but frequently also contain other substances which can be harmful, such as PMA. Pure MDMA could be very useful for people with mental health issues, especially post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD can be a chronic, devastating illness, the sufferers of which often struggle to maintain healthy lives and relationships. 1 in 7 U.S. soldiers returning from Iraq or Afghanistan suffers from PTSD, but the causes of stress are many, for example sexual assault and childhood abuse.

A new study from Imperial College London examined the psychedelic drug's effect on certain parts of the brain, including areas that are linked to memory and emotion. “In healthy volunteers, MDMA seems to lessen the impact of painful memories,” said Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, an author of the study and a professor in the department of medicine at Imperial College London. “This fits with the idea that it could help patients with PTSD revisit their traumatic experiences in psychotherapy without being overwhelmed by negative emotions, but we need to do studies in PTSD patients to see if the drug affects them in the same way.”

The study discovered that MDMA diminished activity in an area in the brain linked to emotions, called the limbic system, and also reduced communication between the medial temporal lobe and medial prefrontal cortex, which is associated with emotional control. This decrease in communication and activity in the limbic system was the “opposite” to what was seen in anxiety patients.

The research also found that MDMA increased communication between the amygdala and the hippocampus, which is reduced in people with PTSD.
In MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, MDMA is only administered a few times, unlike most medications for mental illnesses which are often taken daily for years, and sometimes forever.

This research is in progress and needs another studies in patients to see if they find the same effects. Nevertheless some therapists have started giving their patients MDMA, despite the law.

Unfortunately for-profit pharmaceutical companies are not interested in developing MDMA into a medicine because the patent for MDMA has expired. So the idea of the therapeutic use of MDMA for any specific clinical indication has long been in the public domain.

Many people hope that MDMA follows the same path as marijuana, whose approval for medical purposes led to broad public acceptance.