Ecstasy as Therapy: Have Some of its Negative Effects Been Overblown?

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Although ecstasy (MDMA) — a drug best known for enhancing feelings of empathy and love — has been demonized by parents and politicians, researchers have been quietly studying its potentially therapeutic effects, and they’ve discovered that the data is not bearing out the worst fears about the drug’s harmful effects.

Just this week, for example, a new study, which was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and published in the journal Addiction, found that regular ecstasy use was not associated with cognitive impairment — contradicting some prior studies that did find lasting mental deficits associated with ecstasy use, such as problems with memory and attention.

The problem with those earlier studies, however, is that they had not adequately controlled for the fact that most MDMA users also take other drugs. Further, the control groups involved in past studies were not similar enough to the drug users for appropriate comparison.

For the new study, led by Harvard University’s John Halpern, researchers compared 52 long-term MDMA users, aged 18 to 45, with 59 nonusers. Unlike in prior research, both users and nonusers had participated in the “rave” subculture — meaning that they had all been exposed to potentially brain-altering experiences like dancing all night to repetitive music without adequate hydration. The MDMA users were also drug-tested before taking the cognitive tests, ruling out impairment from current drug use.

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Although the study found a small, possible increase in impulsivity in the ecstasy users, the researchers theorized that this is what initially prompted users to take ecstasy in the first place, rather than the other way around. In other words, ravers who are higher in impulsivity were more likely to take ecstasy than people who are less impulsive; ecstasy doesn’t seem likely to have made those who chose to use more impulsive. On all other cognitive measures, there were no differences.

Prior research on brain damage related to MDMA in animals is also notoriously problematic. Most famously, a study published in Science in 2002 purportedly showed that a single recreational dose of ecstasy could cause brain damage in monkeys that was extensive enough to lead to future Parkinson’s disease. That research had to be retracted, however, when researchers discovered that the drug administered to the monkeys had been methamphetamine, not MDMA. Ironically, some research now suggests that MDMA or similar drugs could help treat Parkinson’s.

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There is still the outstanding question of whether long-term regular MDMA use damages serotonin neurons, potentially affecting mood. Data from some animal studies and trials involving a drug that works similarly to MDMA have suggested these effects. Nonetheless, short-term use for the treatment of conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder is considered safe enough that the FDA has approved clinical trials and these are generating a great deal of excitement.

Oprah’s O Magazine this month has a fascinating feature on the experience of some of the participants in those trials; the article also includes a description of the writer’s own MDMA experiment. Here’s a preview:

Supporters of legalized MDMA therapy believe it can be applied in couples counseling and in treatment for depression, body-image disorders, chronic pain management, and end-of-life anxiety. But many advocates think its best chance at mainstream acceptance is as a tool for people with PTSD. Later this year, Michael Mithoefer, MD, a psychiatrist in Charleston, South Carolina, will publish the long-term follow-up results of the small pilot study that Sarah first heard about six years ago. The outcome: Seventeen of 20 subjects no longer met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD after just two or three sessions of MDMA-aided therapy led by Mithoefer and his wife, Ann, a psychiatric nurse.

The future of ecstasy seems promising.

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I've been on opioids for 12 yrs from chronic pain. While changing doctors, problems arose. I ended up having to go 4 weeks with no pain killers. Between my pain & withdrawl I was going completely mental. Ready to do something drastic. The pain was making me desperate with thoughts of harming people or myself. My friend asked me to try some MDMA. I was leery but desperate so I took a normal dose and cut it into 4 doses just to be safe. Well 40 min later my pain was down at least 80%.

I took the dog out for a walk, first time in weeks. Also noted was my chronic fatigue started to lift. I was sleeping 12-18 hrs per day. Now it's 10 hrs max a day. That's a quality of life improvement.

In two weeks I will see my new doctors. They will want me back on opioids. I don't know what to do!


It seems that with drugs and other behaviors, society tends to react in order to cater to the lowest common denominator.  There are a minority of drug users who ruin their lives with drugs (including alcohol and nicotine).  There are a very small minority of gun owners who commit heinous crimes, those gaining the most public attention, with their guns.  There are people who refuse to educate themselves (And none but themselves are responsible for attaining knowledge and thinking skills.), so our media are dumbed down to accommodate them. On the one hand, my scorn is elitist.  I say, so be it.  Society as a whole is hurt and the majority suffer from the actions of the minority.  On the other hand, perhaps it is compassionate for the majority to deprive itself of some experiences to the benefit of the minority?  It's an interesting dilemma. 


@MarkHarder In a couple thousand years, when the gene pool gets alleviated from that LCD, society will spin toward universal consciousness at a rate faster than a roller coaster into the light


Who cares who classifies it as bad!?!?! Those people should just not take it. The moral majority in the public with very little scientific knowledge somehow guide the progress of society through war on drugs dogma and talk show coffee magazine table science hearsay, if that. I took MDMA 80+ times I don't do any drugs now, I am fine, I enjoyed it. I committed no other crime. 

Seems you need a white coat and to have a problem to enjoy certain things. Life is short and these drugs are there to experience. Ancients have been using drugs 5000 years before Christ. It has influenced art, culture and could have been the lightening bolt of self awareness that started the evolutionary difference between us and the ape.

It seems being cast out, poverty and lack of love are the reason people turn to drugs and get addicted. Lack of purity, occasional allergies and education the reasons for deaths from drugs. Rats given morphine drip water that have a rat social paradise don't go back to the drip compared to those pent up in poor conditions. So lack of opportunity and past pain accelerates addiction.  Alot of ex-vets are addicted to heroin. Perhaps this could of been prevented by MDMA therapy or just going to a shindig with friends and all taking it then talking about the combat experience with friends.

Its not OK to take MDMA and risk death but its OK to go oversees and risk death killing fellow man.


ts pretty clear that the media, and even scholarly study is so biased about drugs that they open any discussion by assuming the drug is bad - lets not forget that most of the synthetic drugs (MDMA, diazepam, amphetamines, heroin, LSD, etc ... ) were all developed by researchers as legal drugs. LSD, MDMA both have strong uses as psychological drugs which are overshadowed by the silly war on drugs mentality.

This nonsense is so bad that you can go into a hospital now and see people in palliative care refusing narcotics so they won't get "hooked"??? pain management is important, and the small number of people who will become addicted are not what we should be worried about, we should be treating the causes of addiction, not the whole population.


nteresting how science investigation changes over time! It's downright embarrassing that the scientist gave the wrong drug to the monkeys! It now appears from the scientific investigation that they had it all wrong in the beginning and now have corrected their mistake. I would be interested in the chronic pain anagement aspect of ecstasy due to spinal fusion C3 through C7 cervical disc.

It is great that just two or three sessions with ecstasy relieved PTSD symptoms! That would indicate that the drug needs to be fast tracked for use in PTSD treatment. We have a lot of soldiers that after years of combat need some relief from the damage of many rotations into combat.