MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD may have benefits beyond reductions in clinical symptoms


May 8, 2019 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google+ Articles of Interest



New research suggests that MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for post-traumatic stress disorder is associated with several beneficial side effects. In addition to reductions in PTSD symptoms, the treatment may be associated with lasting personal benefits and enhanced quality of life, according to research published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs.

“Through my work as a clinical psychologist, I have often witnessed the distress, difficulty functioning, and depleted quality of life associated with severe PTSD for many individuals. Additionally, I have seen the difficulty with which many individuals with PTSD have going through traditional treatments for PTSD,” said William Barone, a clinical psychologist and the senior qualitative researcher on the study.

“I had also been interested in the potential of psychedelic and psychoactive compounds to aid in the therapy process, and the first few phase 2 clinical trials confirmed that MDMA-assisted psychotherapy can have a profound effect on PTSD symptoms beyond anything seen in traditional pharmacotherapy or psychotherapy.”

“I took to develop qualitative research in this field for a number of reasons. There had not been any published qualitative studies in MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD, and it seemed to be a great opportunity to explore the qualitative perspective that I believe is very important in such a study.”

“While quantitative measures are important for showing that a treatment works and that it is safe, in treatments as nuanced as MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, they can have difficulty picking up key details to understanding how and why the treatment may be effective,” Barone told PsyPost.

“In addition to gaining that nuanced picture, qualitative studies give the participants a voice, and provide insights into how people are affected in very real ways through their participation in the treatment.”

clinical trial recently tested the safety and effectiveness of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy in 26 military veterans and first responders with PTSD. For the new study, the researchers interviewed 19 of the participants one year after the end of the trial.

“The Phase 2 clinical trials of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for treatment-resistant PTSD have shown strong reductions in PTSD symptoms over the year following treatment. Based on our study, there appear to be additional benefits to this treatment beyond reduction of PTSD symptoms,” Barone told PsyPost.

Besides reductions in their PTSD symptoms, many of the participants said that the therapy had led to improvement in their self-awareness and social functioning. The therapy also motivated the participants to try new things and reduced the use of both prescription medication and illicit substances.

The participants also expressed being more open to exploring other treatment options following MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. Prior to the clinical trial, many participants expressed very little motivation to continue any treatments for PTSD or other ailments (as is common in individuals with treatment-resistant PTSD).

“Importantly, even the one participant in our sample who was seen to have not benefited from the treatment, displaying less than a 10% reduction in PTSD symptom scores at one year post-treatment, noted that ‘there is improvement from every one of my problems I had when I first came here. Definitely improvement,’” Barone explained.

“The other major take-away from our article is the importance of qualitative investigations in clinical trials, but especially in the psychedelic sciences. Human experience is generally far too nuanced to be captured by t-scores. Especially when the treatment involves ineffable altered states.”

But the study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“The major caveat with most qualitative studies is that they tend to be based on small samples, and even as such are very time and resource intensive. This means it can be difficult to generalize the results,” Barone explained.

“Furthering the difficulty in generalization, the sample included limited diversity, focusing mainly on War Veterans, but also police and firefighters with trauma in the line of duty.”

“However, qualitative studies do not seek generalizability, but rather seek knowledge on an individual level to understand the experience of a phenomena. In recognizing that these experiences took place we have a better understanding of what to look for in future studies,” Barone said.

Last year, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) began efforts to recruit volunteers with severe PTSD for Phase 3 clinical trials of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy.

The recent surge in scientific studies on psychedelics has led to a new interest in qualitative research as well.

“Following this publication there has been an increased interest and focus on developing qualitative research in the psychedelic sciences,” Barone said. “We are especially interested in finding graduate students looking to complete theses and dissertations on similar studies, and will be training researchers to do this work on a range of studies in the coming months.”

The study, “Perceived Benefits of MDMA-Assisted Psychotherapy beyond Symptom Reduction: Qualitative Follow-Up Study of a Clinical Trial for Individuals with Treatment-Resistant PTSD“, was authored by William Barone, Jerome Beck, Michiko Mitsunaga-Whitten, and Phillip Perl.