Study: Ecstasy could help PTSD sufferers

5:58 PM, Nov 30, 2012   |    comments
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By Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN

A party drug could do more than make people happy, relaxed and high.

New research is showing that Ecstasy could help the seven million Americans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Some part of me was on guard, and it just wouldn't stop. I couldn't shut it down," said Rachel Hope.

For Hope, the mental agony began in childhood when she says she was abused and raped at the age of four.

As a grown-up, the smallest trigger, like a familiar smell, would bring it all back.

"I would get very extreme stabbing sensations in my body. And then you know like fixed visuals, like being, for instance, raped," she said.

Mental breakdowns, four hospitalizations, and along the way, she tried almost every treatment in the book.

"I tried EMDR, rapid eye movement therapy, hypnosis, Gestalt - yell it out, scream it out - nothing worked," said Hope.

Then she discovered an experiment run by Dr. Michael Mithoefer, a psychiatrist in Charleston, South Carolina.

"This is the place where we do the study, this is where we meet with people and then this is where we do the MDMA sessions," said Dr. Mithoefer.

Intense psychotherapy, including eight-hour sessions after taking a capsule of MDMA, of ecstasy.

"It felt as if my whole brain was powered up like a Christmas tree. All at one. Voom," said Hope.

"Sometimes people did have a very positive affirming experiences but a lot of the time it was revisiting the trauma. It was a painful, difficult experience. But the MDMA experience seemed to make it possible for them to do it effectively," said Dr. Mithoefer.

Within weeks Hope says about 90 percent of her symptoms were gone.

"I didn't scream. I don't have flashbacks anymore," said Hope.

And in results just published, Dr. Mithoefer says 14 of 19 patients were dramatically better, more than three years later.

"The question is, okay, was this was just a flash in the pan, people just feel good from taking a drug? So the answer to that turns out to be no, it really wasn't just a flash in the pan for most people," said Dr. Mithoefer.

Of course, 19 people is a tiny study, but it is getting attention.

Loree Sutton was the Army's top psychiatrist until she retired in 2010.

"I've certainly reviewed it and the results look promising. It's like the rest of science, we'll apply the rigor, we'll follow where the data leads, we'll leave our politics at the door," said Sutton.

None of this means street Ecstasy is safe. Apart from being illegal, you don't always know what you're getting. It's often contaminated. Pure MDMA can cause a higher body temperature, it can cause dehydration. There also are cases where people overcompensate, and actually die from drinking too much water. But in a controlled setting, which is what we're talking about here, the evidence does seem to suggest that it can be safe.

Similar studies are underway in Europe and Canada, and Dr. Mithoefer is halfway through a study offering this treatment to combat veterans, firefighters, and police officers.



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