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Could This Psychedelic Drug Offer PTSD Relief?

Nature Medicine is preparing to release a new study of the effects of MDMA on those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and the results are promising. So promising, in fact, that some experts are speculating that the study is a serious step towards medical approval. One hiccup: MDMA is an illegal psychedelic more commonly known as ecstacy or molly.

90 people took part in the study, and those who took MDMA combined with talk therapy saw a significantly greater reduction in their PTSD symptoms than those who just got therapy and the placebo. After two months of treatment, 67 percent of the people who took MDMA didn’t even qualify for a PTSD diagnosis anymore. That was true of only 32 percent of people in the placebo group. There were no serious side effects.

“This is about as excited as I can get about a clinical trial,” Gul Dolen, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told the New York Times. “There is nothing like this in clinical trial results for a neuropsychiatric disease.”

The Food and Drug Administration would need at least one more successful Phase 3 trial before approving MDMA for people suffering from PTSD, but that’s already underway. If the results of that study are as promising as the latest completed one, MDMA could be approved as early as 2023. And that could lead towards a more robust series of studies around the use of psychedelics to treat mental health.

It’s worth noting that taken by itself, there’s no evidence that MDMA does anything to lighten the severity of PTSD symptoms. Instead, the drug seems to enhance the value of therapy in ways we don’t yet entirely understand. On some level, it seems like MDMA helps those suffering from PTSD to process their own pain and trauma better — but they still need trained therapists to coach them through the process.

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But other experts are telling people to tap the breaks, cautioning that we’ve got a long ways to go before we fully understand just how effective such treatments are and any possible side effects. As an illegal drug, MDMA was behind about eight percent of all drug-related emergency room visits in 16 major hospitals across 10 countries between 2013 and 2014. Allen James Frances, a professor emeritus and the former chair of psychiatry at Duke University, urged everyone to temper their expectation. “All new treatments in medicine have always had a temporary halo effect by virtue of being new and by promising more than they can possibly deliver,” he told the Times.

Still, the results are encouraging for people who suffer from PTSD, suggesting that help may be on the way in some form or another.

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