Trials to test if Ecstasy beneficial to trauma victims


DOCTORS ARE planning the first clinical trial of ecstasy in the UK, to see whether the drug can be beneficial to the traumatised survivors of child abuse, rape and war.

Ecstasy and other illegal drugs such as LSD and magic mushrooms are potentially useful in treating people with serious psychological disturbance who cannotface up to their distress, some psychiatrists and therapists believe. But due to public fear and tabloid anger about illegal drugs, scientists say they find it almost impossible to explore their potential.

Prof David Nutt, the psychopharmacologist who used to head the UK government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs until he fell out with the Labour home secretary and was sacked, said: “I feel quite strongly that many drugs with therapeutic potential have been denied to patients and researchers because of the drugs regulation. The drugs have been made illegal in a vain attempt to stop kids using them, but people haven’t thought about the negative consequences.”

Prof Nutt and the psychiatrist Dr Ben Sessa are two of the British scientists who hope to repeat an experiment on patients with post-traumatic stress disorder undertaken in the US which, although small, was successful. It involved 20 people who had been in therapy and on pills for an average of 19 years. Twelve were given MDMA – or 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, the compound found, often adulterated, in ecstasy tablets. The rest had placebo pills but were later also given the chance to take MDMA. Each one had a therapy session, lying back in a pleasant room in South Carolina, wearing an eyemask.

Sometimes they listened to music and sometimes they talked to the therapist, all the while thinking about the events that had caused such distress that they had been unable to revisit it in past sessions.

The response rate was a remarkable 83 per cent – 10 out of the 12 showed significant improvement two months after the second of two MDMA therapy sessions. That compared with 25 per cent of those on the placebo. There were no serious side-effects and no long-term problems.

“I expected it was going to be effective,” said Michael Mithoefer, the psychiatrist who ran the US study and carried out the psychotherapy with his wife, Ann. “I suppose we wouldn’t have done it otherwise. But I didn’t necessarily expect we’d find such statistical significance.”

The high number of troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq is attracting attention to the study in the US. Only one of the 20 was a veteran, while the rest had suffered sexual abuse, rape or other assault. Mr Mithoefer’s next study will be on veterans alone.

He said the participants did not appear to have joined the trial in hopes of some sort of high. “I don’t think that was much of a factor at all . . . Interestingly, several people said after their session: ‘I don’t know why they call this ecstasy’ – because it was not an ecstatic experience. They were revisiting the trauma. It was very difficult and painful work, but the ecstasy gave them the feeling they could do it.”

Dr Sessa said he hoped to recreate the study in the UK but “with an added twist – lots of neuroimaging”. MDMA, he said, “is not about dancing around nightclubs – it’s a really useful psychiatric drug”.Prof Nutt and Dr Sessa are waiting for a response to their grant application from one of the UK’s leading medical research funders. Dr Sessa is optimistic; battle-scarred Prof Nutt less so. “If we get the study funded and into the public domain,” said Prof Nutt, “the Daily Mail will try to have it banned”. – (Guardian service)