Addiction Policy Forum Blog

6 min read

How MDMA might help in therapy and treating PTSD

By Mark Gold, MD on January 9, 2020

In May, in a reflection on her religious upbringing, societal strictures, and individual spiritual development, The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino wrote that she first tried ecstasy, or MDMA, in college:

“We swallowed pills that had been crushed into Kleenex, and then we slipped into a sweaty black box of a music venue down the street, and I felt weightless, like I’d come back around to a truth that I had first been taught in church: that anything could happen, and a sort of grace that was both within you and outside you would pull you through."

Some individuals who have used MDMA in non-scientific settings claim that it provides them with energy and reduces social inhibitions through mind-expanding spiritual uplift. It is the substance of choice at night parties, one of the major synthesized club drugs, and linked to accidents, dehydration, overheating, and dangerous behaviors.1 Recreational use is certainly not without its risks. 

But what’s the difference between the substance’s purported therapeutic function and its dangerous side? MDMA is ecstasy’s main ingredient, but individuals who use the substance recreationally are sometimes misinformed about levels of adulteration. It can also be harmful in street versions, which may mix or combine other substances with MDMA. MDMA is not perfectly unique in its effects on sociability and human connection — adages about “moderation” in use abound in part because some substances have both relaxing and stimulating properties that can make social engagements more convivial. Yet the substance is often misused, and can lead to substance use disorder (SUD). In a recent Stanford study, researchers note, “It is unknown, however, whether the mechanisms underlying [MDMA’s] prosocial therapeutic effects and abuse potential are distinct.”

Through controlled doses and experimental administration, MDMA is currently being studied for therapeutic benefits. Early reports by some researchers reviewing MDMA as one option for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have been most promising so far. Carefully observed and administered scientific settings dramatically reduce the likelihood of withdrawal, overdose, and diversion.2 This Stanford study tested mice to try to distinguish between MDMA’s beneficial and harmful effects.

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7 min read

What we have learned from stress and addiction research

By Mark Gold, MD on January 2, 2020

Experts and professionals have become increasingly aware of the health effects of trauma and stress. Trauma, sexual, physical, or emotional, can change the brain and increase risks for many psychiatric conditions and diseases. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), for example, which refer to traumatic events in the lives of people under the age of 18, can negatively affect the brain and lead to addiction, academic problems, heart disease, and depression. A recent study found that ACEs and lifetime adversity exposure were significantly associated with increased risk of substance-related hospitalization, overdose, witnessing overdose, and having a friend and family member who overdosed.1 Similar data have been reported recently for suicide.2 Discussing trauma and stress can be difficult and evoke feelings of depression or shame: they are heavily stigmatized, compounding many of these potential problems and sapping individual reserves of resilience. Science shows us that stress and adversity aren’t just generally irritating aspects of everyone’s lives. In severe forms, they’re also major threats to our health and ability to think clearly and logically.3 

Not all traumatic experiences cause Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or substance use disorder (SUD). Recent research findings from the Yale group suggest that trauma in the absence of a PTSD diagnosis does not lead to a stronger craving for alcohol. 4 Yet researchers know that the risk of developing mental illness rises because of psychosocial adversity. 5 “These adverse factors,” write the authors of one recent study, “include developmental psychological trauma and adult life events (situations or occurrences that bring about a negative change in personal circumstances and involve threat).” These factors can also increase the risk of developing SUD. Researchers are investigating how various therapies, including mindfulness, modify triggers and traumatic memories. 6 But experts have not clearly identified the ways in which stress and trauma dispose people to later problems. In this recent study, researchers wondered whether stress affects dopamine levels, impairing them over a longer term. They exposed participants to stress and gauged their reactions through state-of-the art PET scans.
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