Pubdate: Tue, 06 May 2014
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 2014 Houston Chronicle Publishing Company Division
Author: Kyrie O'connor
Bookmark: (Ecstasy)
Page: A1


A small but important study that has shown remarkable results using a
combination of the drug MDMA - known on the street as ecstasy or
"Molly" - and conventional therapy to treat post-traumatic stress
disorder could be of significant value to thousands of veterans in

The South Carolina study, performed by Dr. Michael Mithoefer and his
wife, Ann, under the auspices of the Multidisciplinary Association for
Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS, involves the short term use, under close
psychiatric care, of the drug 3,4-methylenedioxyN- methylamphetamine,
known medically as MDMA.

If approved for psychiatric use, the treatment could offer relief for
the thousands of PTSD sufferers in Houston and San Antonio, which have
among the largest concentrations of veterans of the Iraq and
Afghanistan wars in the country. Of the 130,000 veterans registered in
the Houston area, 9,695 have been treated for PTSD, according to the
Department of Veterans Affairs.

The study began in 2001 and is currently in its second phase. If a
third phase is approved, the therapy almost certainly would be
available in Texas in a few years.

"For quite some time we've known the potential of MDMA to help with
psychological problems," said Jane C. Maxwell, a senior research
scientist in the school of social work at the University of Texas at
Austin who studies MDMA, "We've begun to understand that some banned
drugs may have special potential. I welcome the fact that we are able
to go back and look at these drugs. This is a small study, but it has
significant potential."

Aid for abuse victims

Most of the study's subjects were victims of child sexual abuse and
rape who hadn't found relief through other therapies. They were given
eight to 10 sessions of psychiatric counseling, and in two of the
sessions were given a dose of MDMA. They were then allowed, of their
own volition, to bring up the memories that had tormented them.

In 83 percent of the 21 cases, according to Mithoefer, the subjects
were found to be symptom-free for up to four years later.

"It's tricky talking about a cure, but it is a sustained remission,"
said Mithoefer .

Three subjects did suffer a relapse. In those cases, they were brought
in for a "booster session" of MDMA and counseling, and they returned
to a symptom-free state, said Mithoefer.

Mithoefer is now working with a second group of 24 patients who are
veterans, firefighters and police officers with PTSD. Similar studies
are underway in Israel, Canada, Switzerland and Colorado.

Alex Vitek is a walking tale about why treatment of PTSD is so
crucial. When he returned to Houston from a tour of duty as an Air
Force medic in Afghanistan in 2007, he brought with him a severe case
of PTSD.

"To be honest, it turned my life up side down," Vitek said. He lost
his wife and child and his career in the military. He fell into a deep
hole of drugs and alcohol. Vitek said he tried suicide multiple times.

"Left untreated, I would have landed six feet deep or in jail," Vitek

Fortunately, he found Camp Hope, a local Christian-based residential
program that uses more conventional treatment methods, such as 12-step
programs, counseling and peer-mentoring. Vitek was able to stick with
the program and later signed on as an intern at Camp Hope. Now he is
on staff as a housing manager. He's a success story.

Mithoefer does not discount other methods of treating post-traumatic

"They are helpful to some and not helpful to others," he said, which
makes having a variety of methods important.

Feel-good transmitter

One of the hallmarks of MDMA is its ability to evoke openness and
closeness in those who take it. Although Mithoefer cautions that no
one truly knows how psychoactive drugs work, some facts are known about 

Scientists know it causes the release of serotonin and other feel-good
neurotransmitters and hormones. Brain imaging shows that it decreases
the activity of the amygdala, where fear arises, and increases
activity in the prefrontal cortex, the site of higher functions.

With MDMA, the subjects are "not overwhelmed with fear," said
Mithoefer. "There is more higher-level processing. Those with PTSD
have the opposite. It's logical that a drug that causes the reverse of
that effect would be helpful."

He cautions that his studies are done in a rigorous clinical setting
and in collaboration with the Food and Drug Administration.

"It doesn't mean it doesn't have any risk," he said.

The history of MDMA is literally a long, strange trip. Merck, the
pharmaceutical company, filed for a patent in 1912 as a drug to
control bleeding.

In 1965, a research scientist name Alexander Shulgin synthesized MDMA
and in 1967 tried it himself. By 1977, psychologists had begun to use
it - at this point, it's still legal - in their practices for couples
counseling, anxiety, post-traumatic stress and pain, said Brad Burge,
spokesman for Santa Cruz, Calif.-based MAPS. No research on the drug
was done, however.

At the same time, MDMA had a burgeoning career as a party drug. It had
traveled down to Texas from the New York club scene, and an
entrepreneur in Texas was shipping up to a half-million pills a month
to Dallas.

It was sold openly at clubs such as Dallas' famous Starck Club, where
everyone from young oil and gas executives to the singer Grace Jones
would pass long, lurid nights of dancing and transgression. (A
documentary on the Starck Club made its debut in April.)

In 1985, however, the Reagan-era U.S. Drug Enforcement Adminstration
placed MDMA, by then known as ecstasy, on its list of Schedule 1
drugs, the level with the highest penalties. Heroin, for example, is a
Schedule 1 drug.

New path of study

Now, research in cooperation with the FDA is just starting to open

"We're just starting to explore research comparing it to cognitive
behavioral therapy, prolonged exposure or eye-movement tracking," said
Burge, citing the most common methods of treating PTSD.

Both Burge and Mithoefer caution that this is not a therapy to try at
home. Ingesting street Molly in an uncontrolled environment in hopes
of achieving Mithoefer's results is a fool's errand. Some street drugs
that purport to be ecstasy or Molly don't contain any MDMA, Burge said.

If the results are borne out by further research, Mithoefer believes
the FDA will eventually approve MDMA for clinical use.
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MAP posted-by: Matt