A long way from the dance floor, MDMA has caught the attention of researchers who believe it could be a powerful way to treat a wide variety of conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.
In interviews with Scientific American's "Science, Quickly" podcast, researchers who study the potential therapeutic effects of methylenedioxymethamphetamine, better known as "MDMA" or "ecstasy," describe how it could help treat these conditions by flooding the brain with the neurotransmitter serotonin.
As Scientific American notes, the drug was initially synthesized more than 100 years ago by pharmaceutical company Merck, which was originally trying to make a blood clotting agent. It was shelved after animal tests because it was too expensive, but years later, when it was given to humans, its euphoria-inducing properties quickly turned it into a popular party drug.
But it was also used by therapists as early as the 1970s and 1980s before being banned by the US Drug Enforcement Agency in 1985.
In spite of being banned, researchers have remained intrigued by whether it has any therapeutic potential.
Michael Mithoefer, a psychiatrist who's been studying MDMA's therapeutic effects for more than 20 years, told Scientific American that the drug showed huge promise when paired with psychotherapy, in a trial involving 90 patients with PTSD.
"88 percent of people receiving MDMA plus the therapy had meaningful improvement in their PTSD symptoms," Mithoefer said, "versus 60 percent who had improvement with the therapy alone."
"In terms of losing the PTSD diagnosis, the therapy plus MDMA was 67 percent of people no longer meeting the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis versus 32 percent in the therapy-only group," he added.
As of right now, the substance is still considered a Schedule I drug, which means that the US government sees it as a dangerous drug that has no accepted medical use.
That, however, could soon change. The Food and Drug Administration is considering legalizing MDMA therapy based on these kinds of therapeutic findings.
And given the promising results, it's clearly a psychoactive drug with huge potential.
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