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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is sometimes difficult to treat; witnessing sexual/physical abuse or injury, or actually suffering from the experience can lead to repeating nightmares, paranoia, sleeplessness, a sense of numbness and flashbacks. A small percentage of people suffering from PTSD never truly recover.

Controversial studies are being performed using the drug MDMA, otherwise known as the rave party drug “Ecstacy”. Although the drug is illegal in most countries, it is showing promise as a medical treatment. The non-profit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychiatric Studies (MAPS) recently presented clinical results from a study launched in 2004 showing no safety problems or serious adverse events. MAPS chose 20 patients who had moderate-to-severe PTSD that had not responded to traditional treatment. Researchers cautioned that these results need to be duplicated.

MAPS has begun a pilot study with US Veterans and is looking to run experiments in other countries to ensure that the drug is effective across cultural settings.

MDMA is an “Entactogen” – a drug that produces feelings of empathy, well being, and insightfulness. It was patented in 1912 by Merck and initially used to create a drug that controlled bleeding. Its therapeutic potential wasn’t realized until 1976, when the American chemist Alexander Shulgin tried it on himself. He noted that it could be ideal for psychotherapy, as it induced a state of openness and trust without hallucination or paranoia. The drug quickly found use in couples therapy and the treatment of anxiety disorders. No scientific testing was attempted, but anecdotally the results were almost entirely positive.

In the early 1980s MDMA became popular in fashionable dance clubs, where it was known as Ecstasy. As use became widespread, US authorities made MDMA an illegal, schedule-1 drug. MDMA used in clinical studies is pure, without the amphetamines, cocaine and other powdered pharmaceuticals found in Ecstacy.

The harmful effects of MDMA are still being studied and exact levels of toxicity are unknown. Although addictive only in rare cases, heavy use may cause lasting neuronal changes, as well as a gradual shift in reaction from well-being and empathy to one akin to amphetamine usage. An overdose of the drug can produce anxiety, depression, paranoia, memory impairment and in extreme cases, organ failure and acute delirium.