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Neuroscience in the Age of Miracles

Ecstacy Helps PTSD Treatment

Two Norwegian scientists, Pål-Ørjan Johansen, a psychologist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, and  Teri Krebs, a neurobiologist at the university, have offered an explanation for how ecstasy aka MDMA might help people get over post-traumatic stress disorder.
They've analyzed a study by Michael Mithoefer that found ecstasy made treatment much more effective, as well as other studies. From Science Daily:

Mithoefer took 21 people with chronic PTSD, all of whom had been subjected to documented abuse. All had also been through six months of treatment with traditional therapy, in addition to a three-month treatment with drugs. None, however, had shown any improvement from the treatment.

Under Mithoefer’s treatment, the patients stopped their usual anxiety-reducing drugs, and began a new treatment with twelve sessions of psychotherapy. During two of these therapy sessions, some patients were given doses of MDMA, while the others were given a placebo (a fake pill).

Two months after the treatment, 92 percent of MDMA patients had clinically significant improvement in their conditions: They were more open to therapy and were able to process the trauma.

The researches propose that part of this effect is due to MDMA's increasing levels  of oxytocin in the brain, thereby making the person feel more trusting and open to the therapeutic relationship.  MDMA also reduces activity in the amygdala -- and this is likely also the result of the increase in oxytocin, because in other tests, inhaling oxytocin lowered activity in this part of the brain, which is responsible for pre-conscious emotional reactions such as fear.

The Norwegian University of Science and Technology (2009, January 8). Ecstasy For Treatment Of Traumatic Anxiety. ScienceDaily.