On an unknown date in 1912, Dr. Anton Köllisch of the Merck Pharmaceutical Company was working on creating a new blood-clotting medication. During his research, he discovered a string of new chemicals, one of which was named 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine, or MDMA.
At the time, neither Dr. Köllisch or Merck were aware of the drug’s psychoactive effects, which can include intense euphoria, reduced fear, anxiety, and aggression, increased energy, and visual distortions. It was these subjective effects, however, that caught the attention of the U.S. government, and they decided to take a closer look at the drug. By 1953, the U.S. Army Chemical Center was testing MDMA as a weapon for espionage.
The medical community was also interested in the drug, though for far less self-serving reasons. The first published study of MDMA in humans, authored by Alexander Shulgin and David Nichols, appeared in 1978 and for the first time, doctors learned of the drug’s potential as a therapeutic tool. Over the next seven years, psychiatrists would conduct over 1,000 clinical sessions of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy.
Unfortunately, during this time, MDMA also made its way into the black market. In 1985, the DEA reacted to widespread recreational by classifying MDMA as Schedule 1, a distinction normally reserved for drugs deemed to have no medical uses and a high potential for abuse. Despite expert testimony and court recommendations, it became illegal to make or possess MDMA, so research into its therapeutic value all but disappeared.
In 1986, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) set out to make MDMA-assisted psychotherapy a legally available treatment, and research has moved forward doggedly since then. Now, one hundred years after its creation, researchers and therapists are rediscovering the potential of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy to transform the lives of men and women suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Care2 recently had the opportunity to talk with Brad Burge, MAPS’ Director of Communications about how far MDMA research has come and the legal challenges holding it back.
Care2: Most people assume MDMA is a dangerous, illegal drug. What are we missing?
Burge: “A lot of people make the mistake of confusing pure MDMA with illegally manufactured ‘ecstasy‘ or ‘molly’. While the FDA has determined that pure MDMA is safe for use in clinical trials, black market substitutes often contain toxic adulterants. MDMA has now been administered to nearly 550 participants in clinical research settings, without a single negative side effect happening as a result of the drug.”
Care2: How is MDMA being used to treat those suffering from PTSD?
Burge: “It’s not the MDMA alone, but how it is used in combination with psychotherapy, that can help people suffering from PTSD. MDMA can actually increase the effectiveness of psychotherapy, allowing people with PTSD to discuss their painful memories openly and honestly. Psychiatrists and therapists have long recognized MDMA’s ability to decrease fear and defensiveness while increasing trust and empathy. MDMA also causes the release of hormones associated with trust and bonding, which may also help enhance therapy.
“MDMA-assisted psychotherapy is not like other pharmaceutical treatments for PTSD, in which people have to use drugs for months or even years and still don’t feel better. With MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, MDMA is only administered a small number of times, and the benefits can last. In fact, 83% of subjects with severe PTSD in a recent clinical trial no longer qualified for PTSD after MDMA-assisted psychotherapy–and those benefits continued for an average of 3½ years of more. These people had suffered from PTSD for an average of 19 years.”
Care2: What is MAPS doing now to help get MDMA back on the table as a therapeutic drug?
Burge: “MAPS is now working closely with the FDA and other agencies around the world to conduct clinical trials into the safety and effectiveness of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD. We get no support from pharmaceutical companies or government agencies, so making MDMA-assisted psychotherapy available to the people that need it requires persistence, donations, and a lot of hard work. It’s exciting to be part of a field that’s transforming a banned chemical into a therapeutic tool through meticulous scientific research and public education.”