There are many dangers involved in taking the illegal drug ecstasy – so why are researchers now looking at ecstasy as a potential treatment for PTSD and anxiety?
Recent research has unearthed the mystery behind how ecstasy impacts the brain to produce its euphoric effects. This has led to a resurgence of studies on its potential psychotherapeutic effects — specifically using the drug to treat PTSD, and potentially other mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression. Of course, these studies are not taking place without controversy over whether the potential benefits outweigh the risks involved.
How Does Ecstasy Affect the Brain?
Ecstasy, E, and Molly are all street names for the same popular party drug, also sometimes referred to as the love drug for its euphoric effects and ability to make users feel extremely affectionate towards other people they meet while on the drug. For the first time, The Imperial College London used fMRI brain imaging techniques to look at exactly how the drug impacts the brain to create these effects.In the study, 25 participants underwent two brain scans – one scan after taking ecstasy and another scan after taking a placebo. The participants did not know which they had been given before each brain scan.
Through these brain scans they found that the drug decreased the activity in the brain’s limbic system — the area which is involved in controlling emotional responses. It also reduced communication between areas of the brain that are involved in emotional control, the medial temporal lobe and the medial prefrontal cortex.
It turns out these effects are opposite of what is found in people suffering from anxiety — whose brain scans show increased or above average activity in the limbic system, and increased communication between the medial temporal lobe and medial prefrontal cortex.
In addition, they also discovered that ecstasy increased communication between the amygdala and the hippocampus. This effect is opposite of what is found in people suffering from PTSD — where brain scans have determined that people with this disorder experience a decrease in communication between those two areas of the brain.
These two findings alone have researchers suggesting to use the drug as treatment for anxiety and PTSD.
In the same study, participants were asked to recall their best and worse memories while undergoing the brain scans. After taking the drug, they rated their best memories as more vivid and positive and worse memories as less negative than after taking the placebo.
This further suggests that it may be useful in treating PTSD as it has the ability to lessen the impact of painful memories so that clients are able to work through them in therapy without becoming emotionally flooded.
While concluding through this study that the drug could potentially be used to treat conditions such as anxiety and PTSD, researchers warned that a study of healthy volunteers could not be generalised to those suffering from mental health disorders and that more studies on patients would have to be done.
Ecstasy and Treatment of PTSD
Since the initial brain study discussed above, more recent clinical trials have begun to specifically study the potential of using the drug to facilitate treatment for PTSD.PTSD stands for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This anxiety disorder can develop after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, and symptoms include flashbacks, extreme fear and anxiety even when danger is no longer present, avoidance of situations that trigger intense memories, and uncontrollable thoughts about the event.
PTSD notoriously responds poorly to treatment, often persisting even after psychotherapy and psycho-pharmaceutical treatment have been undertaken. This has led to a search for new treatment options, including studying ecstasy — a currently illegal drug — as a potential treatment option.
MDMA is the pure form of the street drug, and is what is being used in new research trials. When administered in controlled research settings the drug has been determined to be “sufficiently safe.” However, this is not the case in any other scenario.
In the new study, researchers compared two small groups of participants suffering from treatment-resistant PTSD; one group was given the drug during therapy sessions for PTSD and the other was given a placebo. It was hypothesised that since it increases the release of oxytocin — allowing clients to form a greater therapeutic alliance with their counsellor — plus acts to decrease the perceived intensity of negative life experiences, patients who received drug-assisted psychotherapy would have a greater reduction in their PTSD symptoms.
Researchers concluded that those who received drug-assisted therapy did experience greater decrease in their PTSD symptoms than those who received the placebo. But, many caution against making any statistical conclusions with such small groups of people in a single study.
Further, other researchers caution that while the drug increases release of oxytocin — which could help clients establish a therapeutic alliance with their counsellor, it also increases the release of cortisol which can increase stress and in turn be counterproductive. Also, in a similar way to LSD, it is not selective in the emotions and thoughts it releases, meaning that an experience on the drug could also be negative rather than euphoric.
As the drug is currently illegal, getting funding for research projects attempting to study its pharmaceutical potential is difficult, and such projects are currently funded privately and solely by those who are interested in its future legalisation.
Dangers of Ecstasy
Ecstasy is a dangerous street drug. While the pure form that is used in controlled doses and rare clinical trials may offer potential help and low risk to those suffering PTSD, street users are never sure what exactly they’re getting and the negative side effects can be less than euphoric and sometimes even deadly.By introducing the notion that it could help cure people from PTSD, there may be an increase in people seeking out the street drug to self-medicate — a scenario that could go terribly wrong, leading to even more exacerbated symptoms, addiction, and death.
We still do not know whether ecstasy will be approved in the future, but if so we hope that researchers, doctors, and mental health clinicians alike keep in mind the dangers and risk for drug addiction that it may pose despite the potential benefits.