In Trials, Ecstasy Drug Helps the Traumatized ; Veterans Seek Treatment That Combines MDMA with Psychotherapy
Carey, Benedict, International Herald Tribune
Veterans are seeking treatment from a husband-and-wife team that combines psychotherapy with a dose of MDMA.
Hundreds of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who suffer from post- traumatic stress have contacted a husband-and-wife team who work out of their home in suburban South Carolina to seek help. Many are desperate, pleading for treatment and willing to travel to get it.
The soldiers have no interest in traditional talking cures or prescription drugs that have given them little relief. They want to try an alternative: MDMA, better known as ecstasy, a drug that surfaced in the 1980s and '90s that can induce pulses of euphoria and a radiating affection. The government criminalized the drug in 1985, placing it on a list of prohibited substances that includes heroin and LSD. But regulators have licensed a small number of labs in recent years to produce MDMA for research purposes.
"I feel survivor's guilt, both for coming back from Iraq alive and now for having had a chance to do this therapy," said Anthony, a 25-year-old living near Charleston, South Carolina, who asked that his last name not be used because of the stigma of taking the drug. "I'm a different person because of it."
In a paper posted online Tuesday by the Journal of Psychopharmacology, Michael and Ann Mithoefer, the husband-and-wife team offering the treatment -- which combines psychotherapy with a dose of MDMA -- write that they found 15 of 21 people who recovered from severe post-traumatic stress in the therapy in the early 2000s reported minor to virtually no symptoms today.
The patients in this group included mostly rape victims, and experts familiar with the work cautioned that it was preliminary and its applicability to war trauma unknown. A Defense Department spokeswoman said the military was not involved in research of MDMA.
But given the scarcity of good treatment for post-traumatic stress, "there is a tremendous need to study novel medications" including MDMA, said John H. Krystal, chairman of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine.
The study is the first long-term test to suggest that psychiatrists' tentative interest in hallucinogens and other recreational drugs -- which have been taboo since the 1960s -- could pay off. And news that the Mithoefers are beginning to test the drug in veterans is out, in the military media and on veterans' blogs. "We've had more than 250 vets call us, there's a long waiting list, we wish we could enroll them all," Michael Mithoefer said.
The couple, working with other researchers, will treat no more than 24 veterans with the therapy, following Food and Drug Administration protocols for testing an experimental drug; MDMA is not approved for any medical uses.
A handful of similar experiments using MDMA, LSD or marijuana are now in the works in Britain, Israel, Switzerland and the United States. Military and civilian researchers alike are watching closely. So far, the research has been largely supported by nonprofit groups.
Two people who have had the therapy -- Anthony, in the veterans study, and another who received the therapy independently -- said in interviews that MDMA produced a mental sweet spot that allowed them to feel and talk about their trauma without being overwhelmed by it.
"It changed my perspective on the entire experience of working at ground zero," said Patrick, a 46-year-old living in San Francisco, who worked long hours in the rubble after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, searching in vain for survivors, as desperate family members of the victims pleaded for information. …