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Can MDMA help combat post-traumatic stress disorder?

A clinical trial conducted in Vancouver found MDMA may be effective in treating the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Clinical trial found MDMA — also known as ecstasy — may be an effective treatment for PTSD

MDMA increases the release of hormones like seratonin, dopamine and cortisol, which inhibit fear. (CBC)

A clinical trial conducted in Vancouver found MDMA — also known as ecstasy — may help treat the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The study, conducted by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, enrolled 103 participants who had been dealing with moderate to severe PTSD for at least six months.

They were given either MDMA or a placebo two to three times, in conjunction with non-drug therapy sessions.

After the sessions, the study found that 56 per cent of participants given MDMA no longer fit the criteria for PTSD, compared to 22 per cent of those given the placebo.

When consulted a year after the initial treatment, 67 per cent of patients who experienced improvements still no longer met the criteria for PTSD.

Dr. Allison Feduccia, a neuropharmacologist and clinical trial leader for the study, said the findings are a breakthrough for the mental health field.

"After two sessions of MDMA, we saw that the groups that were assigned to the active treatment group had a significant reduction in their PTSD and depression symptoms and we saw improvements in their sleep quality," she said.

'Why do they call this ecstasy?'

Feduccia said MDMA increases the release of seratonin, dopamine and cortisol, chemicals and hormones which reduce the fear associated with confronting trauma.

"It's a combination of these neurochemicals that are setting up a place that allows the therapeutic process to work more efficiently in people," she said.

She said MDMA also allows patients to access "unconscious materials," also known as repressed memories, a process that can initially be painful for patients.

"Some people will say 'I don't know why they call this ecstasy' as they're going through the therapy, because there can be a lot of emotions they may not be in touch with and they may have memories that are very painful."

However, she said this process of "memory reconsolidation" can be key to getting to the root causes of PTSD.

Fighting the stigma around psychedelics

Feduccia said she hopes the success of these trials will reduce the stigma that surrounds the use of psychedelic drugs as treatment. 

"I think that the public atmosphere is changing around accepting this as a really legitimate treatment because of these controlled trials."

​She added the findings are particularly encouraging because the drug needs to be taken very few times before results can be observed.

"Having another option, especially a drug that's only administered two to three times in the context of therapy, is quite appealing."

The trial's findings were presented at the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research forum in Vancouver.

With files from On The Coast

To listen to the interview, click the link labelled Can MDMA help combat post traumatic stress disorder?