Scott Ostrom’s struggle with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) began in 2007 when he returned from Iraq. Guess what now? He no longer has nightmares; he is a different person.

A recent study on MDMA (a psychedelic drug), also known as Molly or Ecstasy, has shown that it can bring comfort and relief to those suffering from severe PTSD when paired with oral therapy.

In a significant step towards achieving medical approval, MDMA, an illegal drug many known as Molly, was shown to relieve those struggling with severe cases of PTSD when paired with talk therapy.

In this study published in the journal of Nature Medicine, there were about 90 participants. Patients who received MDMA during therapy experienced a significant reduction in the severity of their symptoms. That’s when compared to those who received MDMA therapy and an inactive drug. Sixty days after receiving treatment, over 65% of the participants in the MDMA category tested negative for PTSD.

After the treatment, we noticed that there were no side effects beyond the temporary loss of appetite and nausea. None of the participants recorded any damaging side effects associated with the MDMA.

According to Gul Dolen, a neuroscientist at John Hopkins University School of Medicine, “There’s nothing like this result when it comes to clinical trials for neuropsychiatric disease.”

The approval of MDMA-assisted therapy for therapeutic use can come as soon as 2023. But before the FDA can approve this, it must produce a second positive phase 3 trial. The process is underway, with 100 participants involved.

Experts on this research stated that the primary phase 3 trial on psychedelic-assisted therapy could open the door for more studies on the potential of MDMA over chronic mental health issues like OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), phobias, and anxiety in autistic adults, among others. In equal measure, mental health professionals believe that these studies could allow additional research on banned psychedelics like mescaline, psilocybin, and LSD.

A neuroscientist at the University of California, and lead author of the new research, Jennifer Mitchell, has said, “It is wonderful! A rewarding time for discovery because more people are starting to consider these substances as therapeutics once again– which hasn’t been the case for over five decades now.”

A new study was conducted to examine patients with PTSD by a team of researchers led by Jennifer Mitchell. According to the study, MDMA paired with therapy tends to aid the brain in processing painful memories and helps self-healing.

Some experts are a little conservative about this; Dr Allen James Frances (Professor emeritus and a one-time chairperson of the psychiatry at duke university) is one of such. He had cautioned that new treatments “are not always as amazing  as they first appear.” Though he was not part of this new study, he said, “All new treatments have a temporary halo effect, as they promise more than they can deliver.”

The interfering symptoms of PTSD can affect both civilians and combat veterans. Early mediation is essential in curbing the condition. 

Removing the Stigma: The wrong notion about the development of PTSD and its symptoms can hinder people from seeking treatment.

Psychedelic Drugs: Veterans are unlikely to advocate the decriminalization of substances like MDMA as studies explore their therapeutic potential.

Virtual Reality: A new technological treatment that immerses patients in a memory simulation can help them get over the trauma.

Pandemic Trauma: Health workers are prone to PTSD due to the exacerbation of mental ill-health caused by Covid-19.

Dr Mitchell says, compared to traditional pharmaceuticals, MDMA doesn’t act as a band-aid that tries to blunt symptoms of PTSD. When paired with therapy, it gives room for the brain to process painful memories and heal naturally. Importantly, when you take MDMA without therapy, it doesn’t generate beneficial effects automatically.

The Director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies and a senior author of the study has said, “It’s not the drug, it’s the therapeutic effects initiated by the drug.”

For the process, a person has to connect with their trauma. Participants had to undergo preparatory sessions first alongside two professional therapists. Then, over three sessions of 8 hours each, having a month interval between them, they get an inactive drug or MDMA. The participant and the therapist had no idea what they got. Some guessed what they received correctly, but it did not affect the FDA’s result and methodology, which was pre-agreed.

Scott Ostrom, one of the study participants, struggled with debilitating nightmares. He said, “Bullets would mess with the end of my gun, or I’d be isolated from my team and be lost alone in a town with insurgents watching me.”

Mr Scott’s days were littered with panic attacks; he had to drop out of college. He drove family and friends away. He got into a relationship, but it was unhealthy. He goes charged with attempted suicide and assault. Medication and therapy couldn’t help. After participating in the trial, his nightmares ceased. He said, “I’m a different person”.

In 2019, during his first three sessions, lying on a couch with his shades on, caught up in a lucid state, Scott encountered a spinning, oily black ball. The ball had multiple layers; every layer represented a memory. He relived his time in Iraq; he said, “I was transformed to who I needed to survive the combat deployment.” In the subsequent sessions, Scott connected with “the bully,” as he referred to his PTSD alter ego, and took permission to return.

Scott Ostrom, now 36, works steadily as an HVAC specialist and owns a home near Boulder, Colo.; he lives with his girlfriend (Jamie Ehrenkranz) and his service dog, Tim.

Scott said, “Why I like using this medicine is because it enables me to tap into my subconscious’s ability to self-heal. You get to understand why it’s okay to love yourself unconditionally.”

In 1912, MDMA was invented by a Merck pharmacist. But in no time, the compound was wholly forgotten until Alexander Shulgin, a renowned psychedelic chemist, synthesized the drug and tried it in 1976. He realized that this discovery tends to be therapeutic; he shared the MDMA with Leo Zeff (a psychotherapist) in 1977. Leo introduced the drug to other mental health professionals. In the eight years that followed, many therapists and others administered MDMA estimated to be about half a million doses. It was reported that after a few sessions, many patients experienced significant progress, which usually takes a couple of years to achieve.

In the early 80s, MDMA escaped from the health centres to the party house, where it earned the name “Ecstasy.” In 1985, it was criminalized by the Drug Enforcement Administration as a Schedule I substance. The agency classified the compound as having “no current acceptance for medical use with high potential for abuse.”

Most mental health professionals stopped administering the drug, while some continued to administer the MDMA-assisted therapy underground. There was also an evident decline in the number of scientists who pursued the study of MDMA, though some forged ahead. One of those who kept the pace was Dr Doblin, who founded his association in 1986, focusing on developing MDMA and other psychedelics into medications that the FDA could approve. At least two decades flew by before MDMA could shed off all the claims of the dangers of ecstasy. After that, they earned the approval to commence the study. Research in humans and animals shows that MDMA does not produce any neurotoxic effects at the doses administered in clinical trials.

On the flip side, ecstasy or Molly can be mixed with other potentially harmful substances. Users may consume higher doses than are safe for use. In 2011, MDMA accounted for about 1.8% of all drug-related emergency department visits. According to a database maintenance unit that year, that was by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. From 2013 to 2014, in 16 major hospitals in about ten countries across Europe, MDMA accounted for 8% of drug-related emergency visits.

The source of MDMA’s therapeutic effect is still a mystery to scientists. The substance glues to a protein that regulates serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain that can elevate mood. MDMA takes the process a tad further. It causes the protein to pump serotonin into synapses and strengthen their chemical signal.

MDMA elevates levels of oxytocin, dopamine, and similar chemical messengers, which then produce empathy, compassion, and trust. It is speculated that its primary therapeutic effect may be from its ability to reopen the “critical period,” the window during childhood when the brain has the exceptional ability to generate new memories and store them. We had evidence from a study conducted on a mouse published in 2019. It shows that MDMA can take the adult brain to this earlier state of malleability.

Of the 90 participants who took part in the Phase 3 trial, a good number of them were combat veterans, victims of a mass shooting, sexual assault, childhood trauma, or domestic violence. All of them had a severe case of PTSD and have been diagnosed on an average of 14 years. Over 90% of the participants had considered suicide, while some had a history of alcohol use. The trial included data collected by 80 therapists at 15 sites in Israel, Canada, and the United States.

A psychophysiology researcher at John Hopkins University School of Medicine, Albert Gracia-Romeu, said that additional research is needed to fully explore the efficacy of MDMA-assisted therapy for people of diverse races and ethnicities. He was not part of the study, but he believes that three-quarters of the participants for this trial were white, which may underscore some limitations. Because “accessibility to this kind of treatment to people of colour and people with lower socioeconomic status is important, some already suffer from health disparities and disturbing traumatic experiences.”

But in all ramifications, Dr Gracia-Romeu said, the findings have a clear case to achieve medical approval,” something which will reflect a sea change capable of revolutionizing health care.”


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