Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) commonly known as ecstasy is a psychoactive drug mainly used for recreational purposes. Two top neuroscientists, Boris Heifets and Robert Malenka from Standford University have called for more research into the substance claiming that understanding how it works could hold the key to new therapeutic compounds and treatments for psychological conditions.
Effects of ecstacy include increased empathy, euphoria, and heightened sensations. In America, the drug is currently classified as Schedule I
alongside drugs like LSD and heroin. These compounds have no medical use, and have high abuse potential hence extremely hard for researchers to get ethics approval and funding to study.
‘Ecstacy (MDMA) is not just a hallucinogen. It has the potential to be classified as a medicine. Rigorous scientific exploration of its effects is needed to identify precisely how the drug works, and to see if it can be developed into new therapeutic compounds.’
Robert Malenka, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist from Stanford University said, "We've learned a lot about the nervous system from understanding how drugs work in the brain, both therapeutic and illicit drugs. Studying the response of the brain and nervous system to any drug is no different than running an animal through a maze and asking how learning and memory work." He added, "If we start understanding MDMA's molecular targets better, and the biotech and pharmaceutical industries pay attention, it may lead to the development of drugs that maintain the potential therapeutic effects for disorders like autism or PTSD but have less abuse liability."
Previous studies have shown that MDMA could show potential in treating patients suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to a paper published in 2012 in the Journal of Psychopharmacology
in a trial of 12 people with PTSD, the use of ecstacy in conjunction with counselling, has shown to treat the condition without any ill side effects. Six years later, 11 patients showed no return of PTSD symptoms, and none had started abusing drugs (the 12th member of the original study wasn't available for the follow-up).
The findings published in the peer-reviewed journal Cell
states that the therapeutic effect of MDMA was often rapid, happening over the course of hours or only a few short therapeutic sessions. The benefits appear to come from the fact that MDMA triggers electrochemical messaging in the brain that increases feeling of connection and empathy which is why scientists class the drug as an 'empathogen'. But on a neurological level, researchers still don't really understand how it works and although initial brain scans have provided insight into which regions of the brain are involved in the process, there's still more to find out. This increases the demand to use all the available tools of modern basic and clinical neuroscience research to map MDMA's mechanism of action in the brain.
The researchers openly acknowledge that the drug can be dangerous in large doses, and shouldn't be used recreationally. Research on whether ecstacy is harmful in small doses and an addictive is still inconclusive, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse says that a significant part of the health risk to ecstacy users stems when used in conjunction with extremely dangerous chemicals such as cocaine, ketamine, methamphetamine. But irrational barriers to its study based on poor understanding of its actions need to be minimised so that appropriate clinical studies can be performed. It can be given to humans under properly controlled, carefully monitored clinical conditions. Malenka said that his team had already begun preliminary studies to test ecstacy's effects in mice, and is currently drafting a proposal to the National Institute on Drug Abuse for a larger study to analyze the human aspects of the study. There are at least seven current studies investigating the drug's use for beneficial purposes, including a study researching its impact on terminal patients with just a few months left to live. Another pioneering study is to investigate whether the stimulant could help autistic people overcome social anxiety.
MDMA isn't the only psychoactive drug that scientists think could be beneficial for human health. In early trials, ketamine has been shown to have an unbelievable effect when it comes to treating depression. A trial of 12 people has shown that magic mushrooms can also be used alongside psychotherapy to improve long-term depression in less than three weeks.
This call for more research into the substance comes just three months after scientists obtained unprecedented insights into the impact of Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) on the human brain through a series of brain scan. Neuroscientists likened these findings to the discovery of the Higgs boson.