The results of the first ever clinical trial investigating the use of MDMA to treat alcoholism have just been published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, and while much more research is needed before definitive conclusions can be drawn, the initial findings look very positive. The drug was well tolerated by all participants and enhanced the efficacy of psychotherapy, encouraging the study authors to call for larger, placebo-controlled trials to be conducted.
Though illegal in most countries, MDMA is commonly used as a party drug. Previous research has indicated that it reduces activity in a brain region called the amygdala, which is associated with basic emotions such as fear. Because of this, the study authors speculated that the drug may help people suffering from alcohol use disorder (AUD) to process negative memories and deal with the traumas that underlie their addiction.
“MDMA, given in a psychotherapeutic context, may reduce avoidance of emotionally distressing thoughts, images or memories of alcohol misuse while increasing empathy for the self and others,” they write.
To investigate, they recruited 14 AUD sufferers, all of whom had recently completed detox and were therefore abstinent from alcohol. Participants were placed on an eight-week course of recovery-based therapy, during which they received ten psychotherapy sessions.
Patients were dosed with MDMA on two of these sessions, allowing them to experience psychotherapy while under the influence of the drug. This comprised an initial dose of 125 milligrams – similar to a typical recreational dose – followed two hours later by a booster of 62.5 milligrams. According to the researchers, this helped to prolong the experience, maximizing the amount of time that participants spent undergoing MDMA-assisted psychotherapy.
It’s important to note that the primary aim of this study was to investigate the safety and tolerability of MDMA as a treatment for AUD, and that actual reductions in drinking were recorded only as a secondary measure. Nonetheless, the authors report that nine of the 14 participants remained completely abstinent from alcohol nine months later, with another two consuming less than 14 units a week.
At this nine-month follow-up point, participants consumed an average of 18.7 units of alcohol per week, compared to 130.6 weekly units in the month preceding their treatment. Psychosocial functioning was also enhanced in all members of the cohort, while MDMA use caused no adverse reactions, mood disturbances, or increases in suicidality.
Based on these findings, the study authors conclude that “MDMA-assisted psychotherapy can be safely delivered, is well tolerated and has the potential to enhance and intensify the psychotherapeutic processes in the treatment of patients with AUD.”
However, due to the small cohort size and lack of placebo-controlled study design, the researchers accept that more work is needed in order to determine the efficacy of MDMA to treat alcohol addiction. It’s also worth noting that the study authors did not give MDMA to anyone who was actively consuming alcohol, and instead used the drug to help AUD sufferers who had already undergone a detox remain abstinent.