World-first trial tests novel MDMA therapy on alcoholism

February 25, 2021
World-first trial tests novel MDMA therapy on alcoholism

A small, open-label trial by a team of UK researchers has explored the use of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy as a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD). Results suggest MDMA is safe, well-tolerated and significantly more effective than any current treatment for alcoholism, similar to recent robust work showing the drug to be significantly effective treating PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA, was originally synthesised in Germany in 1912. MDMA soon spiraled into recreational use before it was eventually banned in the early 1980s. However, for the last few years, psychiatrist Ben Sessa and colleagues have been exploring the role of MDMA therapy in treating alcoholism. They sought to establish a safety profile for MDMA therapy in patients suffering from AUD; an expansive nine-month follow-up period also allowed for a unique insight into how long-term drinking behaviours were affected.

This study recruited 14 subjects with AUD, adopting a protocol similar to that being explored by MDMA for PTSD research. The course of treatment spanned eight weeks and comprised 10 psychotherapy sessions. Two of those sessions involve day-long MDMA treatments, while the other sessions are more traditional one-hour psychotherapy appointments.

In regards to tolerability and safety, the study reports no adverse responses to the drug were detected either during a treatment session or in the days following.

In contrast, recreational MDMA users have frequently reported negative mood swings around two to three days after using the drug. Anecdotally referred to as “Terrible Tuesdays,” pseudoscientific explanations have often suggested some kind of serotonin depletion can take hold in the days following MDMA use, causing a unique kind of depressive hangover.

The new study suggests that when MDMA is delivered through a clinical therapeutic program this anecdotal post-drug hangover is not detected. Sessa hypothesises this common recreational observation is more due to polydrug use and other confounding factors instead of the MDMA itself.

As for the follow-up results only 21% of the cohort were drinking more than 14 units of alcohol per week, nine months after the trial. This compares to an average of 130 units of alcohol consumed per week by each patient before detox at the beginning of the study.

It is important to note this is still very preliminary research. A larger placebo-controlled trial run by burgeoning psychedelic biotech company Awakn Life Sciences is underway in the UK to more comprehensively explore the efficacy of MDMA therapy for AUD. Sessa, chief medical officer for Awakn, suggests this stage could take at least three years before clear clinical validation.

Read: Study establishes detrimental effects of alcohol on brain activity

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Category: Education, Features

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