A lengthy article in last weekend’s Washington Post Magazine discusses the work of Michael Mithoefer, a psychiatrist at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) who has almost completed the first phase of a clinical study into the use of ecstasy as a therapeutic tool for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Ecstasy (MDMA, or 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine) is a psychedelic and a stimulant which acts by inhibiting the reuptake of serotonin, and, to a lesser extent, of dopamine and noradrenaline. It is illegal in most countries (it is classified as a Class A drug in the U.K. and a Schedule I drug in the U.S.), but its popularity as a recreational drug has increased dramatically since the late 1980s.
During the 1950s, research into the use of psychedelics for treatment of various psychiatric conditions was not uncommon, and many therapists believed that the drugs were of great potential benefit. In the early 1960s, however, such studies ceased almost entirely, after widespread recreational use of the substances led to their criminalisation.
Interestingly, the Washington Post article lays the blame for this dramatic decline in research single-handedly Timothy Leary, who started off doing serious research into LSD but became the drug’s biggest advocate, and the new-age guru and icon for the LSD counterculture. Ironically, recent historical research has revealed that a number of these early studies showed that LSD is effective in treating alcoholism.
Mithoefer’s study, which is the first of its kind in over 20 years, is sponsored by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a non-profit organization whose proposed 5-year, $5 million plan for research into MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2001.
Following further approval by the Drug Enforcement Administration in 2004, Mithoefer commenced his study in April 2004, by recruiting 21 women who suffered from otherwise untreatable PTSD as a result of rape or other forms of violence.
One of the first patients enrolled in the study was Donna Kilgore, whose case is documented in the Washington Post article, together with Mithoefoer’s preliminary, unpublished findings. Although the initial results are promising, some PTSD researchers are skeptical, because the data have not yet been analyzed statistically. Others criticize the DEA’s decision to approve the study, as the extent of MDMA’s neurotoxicity is yet to be determined.
Nevertheless, Mithoefer is convinced that MDMA is an effective treatment. The first stage of his study is almost complete, with 18 of the 21 patients having undergone double-blind MDMA-assisted psychotherapy sessions. 2 Iraq war veterans, both with PTSD, have already been cleared to take part in the second stage of the study.