Party Drug Ecstasy May Help Tough Cases of PTSD, Researchers Say

Two recent studies show that MDMA, or ecstasy, may be helpful to vets struggling to overcome trauma.

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    In this Sunday, Aug. 9, 2009 file photo, U.S. soldiers patrol the outskirts of Spin Boldak, near the border with Pakistan, about 100 kilometers (63 miles) southeast of Kandahar, Afghanistan. The U.S. Institute of Medicine recommended on Friday, July 13, 2012 that soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan be screened for post-traumatic stress disorder at least once a year and that federal agencies conduct more research to determine how well the various treatments for PTSD are working. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

    New research suggests the use of the party drug ecstasy may be effective for treating the most resistant form of post-traumatic stress disorder when used alongside psychotherapy, the military newspaper Stars and Stripes reported.

    A follow-up study conducted by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) looked at the long-term benefits for participants in a clinical trial conducted more than three years earlier.

    MAPS researchers in South Carolina used MDMA, which is more commonly known as ecstasy, during closely monitored 8 to 10 hour long psychotherapy sessions. The earlier research by the California non-profit found that that 83 percent of 20 participants -- including multiple victims of sexual assault and one veteran -- receiving the MDMA-assisted therapy no longer qualified for a PTSD diagnosis two months after treatment, according to Stars and Stripes.

    Nineteen patients participated in the follow-up study, with 84 percent showing few to no symptoms of PTSD today, MAPS said. The study's results were published last week in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.

    With these new results, the U.S. military is now testing the treatment on military veterans with treatment-resistant PTSD, according to Stars and Stripes. 

    The treatment could help the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs cope with the financial cost of post-combat PTSD. The agency spent about $5.5 billion on PTSD disability payments to some 275,000 veterans in 2011, according to the Stars and Stripes report.

    PTSD is debilitating, said San Diego psychiatrist Clark Smith, causing sufferers to re-live their most frightening and difficult experiences.

    “With PTSD you not only remember it, you re-experience the original trauma and you really believe your life is about to end," Smith told NBC San Diego.

    Smith has done extensive work with post-traumatic stress disorder.

    Read: FAQ's on PTSD

    "It's like Groundhog Day and every day is horrible," Smith said.

    Treatment can be difficult because many patients simply don't want to face their fears. In fact, every time a patient talks about it, they feel much worse Smith said.

    Smith said he's not surprised that the party drug could be an effective treatment because it can give the user a calming, euphoric feeling. That's why Smith said the drug could potentially help patients get past their fears.

    "You re-experience the trauma in a different way, it's not so threatening for you, you have a sense of being safe and secure," he said.

    Smith said there are potential problems with ecstasy, including addiction. He also pointed out that Valium can be an addictive drug but it is still used as a form of treatment.

    "Any doctor will tell you that if the relationship between the risks and benefits is good,” Smith said. “The benefits are better than the risks then we want to be able to use it to help our patients."