Scientists in the United Kingdom are preparing to conduct the world’s first clinical trial looking into the potential therapeutic effects that MDMA, the active ingredient in Ecstasy, could have on people grappling with alcohol addiction.
Researchers at Imperial College London have announced that they were granted ethical approval to conduct a small MDMA trial on people with alcohol addiction in the city of Bristol, The Guardian reported last week. For the trial, 20 patients — all of whom are heavy drinkers whose previous treatments for alcoholism have failed — will undergo psychotherapy sessions while under the influence of 99.99 percent pure MDMA.
MDMA is an empathogen, or drug known to produce feelings of love, social connection and empathy. Researchers hypothesize that this effect could help people with alcohol addiction get more out of psychotherapy sessions.
“It’s using drugs to enhance the relationship between the therapist and the patient, and it allows us to dig down and get to the heart of the problems that drive long-term mental illness,” Ben Sessa, a clinical psychiatrist involved in the trial, told The Guardian.
Earlier clinical studies have shown MDMA-assisted psychotherapy may be effective in treating trauma and anxiety. In a small study from 2010, more than 80 percent of patients with post-traumatic stress disorder stopped showing symptoms of the condition after two sessions of therapy following supervised MDMA use.
MDMA-assisted psychotherapy may also be effective in helping people with autism who suffer from social anxiety, suggests preliminary findings from a recent study. Compared to placebo, participants who took MDMA before attending therapy saw a “marked drop in their anxiety” after two sessions, according to Discover magazine.
In a 2015 interview with HuffPost, Rick Doblin, executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, an organization dedicated to raising awareness and supporting research into psychedelics for medical use, explained how MDMA can help patients suffering from trauma.
There’s a misconception that these drugs are dangerous because they make people lose control, he said.
“But in fact, we’re seeing that keeping things in control is often what’s keeping these disorders from getting healed,” Doblin said. “When someone is able to let go of their normal sense of controlling their emotions or not feeling things or pushing things down, an astonishing type of healing can take place.”
“It’s using drugs to enhance the relationship between the therapist and the patient, and it allows us to dig down and get to the heart of the problems that drive long-term mental illness.”
Sessa told The Guardian that MDMA’s ability to treat people with trauma could have similarly profound impacts on people with alcohol addiction.
“We know that MDMA works really well in helping people who have suffered trauma and it helps to build empathy. Many of my patients who are alcoholics have suffered some sort of trauma in their past and this plays a role in their addiction,” he said.
Sessa has long been an advocate of using psychedelic drugs like MDMA, marijuana and psilocybin (aka “magic mushrooms”) to treat mental illness. According to his website, he’s currently involved in two MDMA studies: one looking at alcohol addiction, and another investigating the exact mechanism behind MDMA’s effect on the brains of patients with PTSD.
Watch a TED Talk he gave last year about MDMA-assisted psychotherapy:
Drug-assisted psychotherapy “is a radical new way of looking at treating mental illness,” Sessa told Psychedelic Press in an earlier interview. ”[But] because of the history of drug misuse in culture ― and the continued problems with drugs in our society today ― it is also controversial subject. But it need not be; the psychedelic drugs (unlike cocaine, alcohol and many prescribed drugs) are extremely safe ― despite their negative public perception.”
Sessa said his life’s work is dedicated to challenging this bad reputation.
“I feel it is a worthy cause to be backing because ultimately it is the patients that are missing out on these wonderful medicines and they deserve the chance to see them researched,” he said.
Other experts in this field have warned, however, that recreational use of drugs like MDMA can have negative effects, too.
“I’ve seen people in my practice who took MDMA at a party and weren’t prepared for the memories that came up, and it was really harmful for them,” psychiatrist Michael Mithoefer, one of the authors of the 2010 study on MDMA-assisted therapy, told Nature in April.
People high on MDMA can also experience adverse physical side effects, such as nausea, muscle tension, sweating and chills. High doses of the drug can “lead to a spike in body temperature that can occasionally result in liver, kidney, or heart failure or even death,” according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
The Drug Enforcement Administration considers MDMA a Schedule 1 drug, defined as substances with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Heroin, LSD and marijuana are also in this category.
MDMA’s status may change in the near future, however. Last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave researchers the green light to conduct phase three clinical trials on MDMA for PTSD treatment. Phase three is the final stage before the FDA can grant approval for public use of a drug.
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.