Ecstasy may help patients with post-traumatic stress disorder learn to deal with their memories more effectively by encouraging a feeling of safety, says a new study.
Previous studies have shown that a type of psychological treatment called exposure therapy, where the patient repeatedly recalls the traumatic experience or is repeatedly exposed to situations that are safe but still trigger their traumatic feelings, can be effective in relieving stress responses in patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other anxious conditions.
The therapy works by helping the patient to re-learn the appropriate response to the trigger situation, a process known as extinction learning.
However, this approach can take some time, and 40 percent of patients continue to experience post-traumatic stress even after their treatment.
To get better results, scientists have been investigating the use of drug therapies to enhance the effect of exposure therapy, making the result of exposure to the fear trigger easier, faster, and more effective.
MDMA (the pharmaceutical version of Ecstasy) is one such drug.
"A goal during exposure therapy for PTSD is to recall distressing experiences while at the same time remaining grounded in the present. Emotional avoidance is the most common obstacle in exposure therapy for PTSD, and high within-session emotional engagement predicts better outcome," said authors Pal-Ørjan Johansen and Teri Krebs, who are based at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and supported by the Research Council of Norway.
Psychiatrists that have administered MDMA to anxiety patients have found that it promotes emotional engagement; strengthens the bond between the patient and doctor, known as the therapeutic alliance; decreases emotional avoidance; and improves tolerance for recall and processing of painful memories.
Johansen and Krebs said: "MDMA [ecstasy] has a combination of pharmacological effects that could provide a balance of activating emotions while feeling safe and in control."
The study has been published in Journal of Psychopharmacology.