HUNDREDS of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans with posttraumatic stress have recently contacted a husbandand-wife team who work 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 are lining up to try an alternative: MDMA, better known as Ecstasy, a party drug that surfaced in the 1980s and ’90s that can induce pulses of euphoria and a radiating affection. Government regulators criminalised the drug in 1985, placing it on a list of prohibited substances that includes heroin and LSD.
But in recent years, regulators have licensed a small number of labs to produce MDMA for research purposes.
In a paper posted online 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 Mithoefers – he is a psychiatrist and she is a nurse – collaborated on the study with researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina and the nonprofit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.
The patients in this group included mostly rape victims, and experts familiar with the work cautioned that it was preliminary, based on small numbers, and its applicability to war trauma entirely unknown. A spokeswoman for the Department of Defence said the military was not involved in any research of MDMA.
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.
The couple, working with other researchers, will treat no more than 24 veterans.
A handful of similar experiments using MDMA, LSD or marijuana are now in the works in Switzerland, Israel and Britain, as well as in the US.
The Mithoefers administer the MDMA in two doses over one long therapy session.
Most have found their score on a standard measure of symptoms – general anxiety, hyperarousal, depression, nightmares – drops by 75%. That is more than twice the relief experienced by people who get psychotherapy without MDMA, the Mithoefers said.
The couple sits with the patient while the altered state lasts.
For many people, the experience in treatment is emotionally vivid. The drug does not produce a “high”, but it usually brings some tranquillity.
“The feeling I got was nothing at all for 45 minutes, then really bad anxiety, and I was fighting it at first,” said Anthony, an Iraq veteran, who patrolled southwest of Baghdad in 2006 and 2007 amid relentless insurgent harassment and attacks with improvised explosive devices.
“And then I felt okay and messed up at the same time. Clear. It was like I could go into any thought I wanted and fix it.”
For instance, he could think and talk about an attack that occurred in a town near Baghdad, in which Iraqis posing as allies turned their guns on American troops, killing several.
“The military does a great job of turning you into a soldier, of teaching you how to control your reactions, and it is hard to turn those habits off,” Anthony said.
He said he no longer struggled with post-traumatic anxiety or guilt, more than a year after undergoing the MDMA-assisted treatment. The Mithoefers found 80% of the patients treated in the early 2000s, reported that much or all of the initial benefit they achieved on this standard test persisted a year to five years after the therapy ended.
If the results among veterans are anywhere near as powerful and lasting, researchers said, it is likely that the government would be willing to pay for a larger trial. – New York Times
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