A first-of-its-kind trial using MDMA alongside psychotherapy to try and stop alcoholism has been successful, scientists revealed.
The small study of just four people managed to stop all of their ‘harmful’ daily drinking after eight weeks of therapy.
Two of the adults, who were all aged between 34 and 63, slipped up and had a single drink each, but the other two managed to stay completely sober.
Among them were a 54-year-old mother-of-three, a 34-year-old man with two children, a retired man who had been drinking for 30 years and a former heroin user.
The study combined weekly psychotherapy sessions with monthly sessions in which they took MDMA – a form of ecstasy – and had therapy while high.
One said they felt more confident and ‘energised’, another said ‘everything is so much clearer’, while a third added ‘a weight has been lifted off my shoulders’.
Researchers say they have been successful in early trials of combining MDMA with psychotherapy in a bid to help people get over their alcoholism (stock image)
Scientists at Imperial College London devised the study and carried it out with the help of an NHS mental health trust in Bath.
It’s the first study in ongoing research into whether the recreational drug can be used in a medical scenario to help people battling addictions.
One of the participants, a 50-year-old man, said: ‘A weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I haven’t felt like that for a long time. There are no nagging doubts.
‘I’m getting my life back on track. Everything is so much clearer. It’s like a smog has been removed. I can see myself moving forward… It makes me think: why was I drinking that rubbish?’
WHO WERE THE PEOPLE IN THE STUDY AND WHAT DID THEY SAY?
None of the participants in the study were identified but researchers revealed their life histories and comments.
Participant 1 was a 34-year-old man who had had a drinking problem for 10 years. He had tried to stop drinking multiple times but never succeeded, but manages to work full-time and has a wife and two children.
He said: ‘It’s not about the drinking, the MDMA healed me inside and the drinking looks after itself…
‘I’m seeing things anew, nature for the first time… I’m in control of my decisions, I’ve got control back … Life is just good!’
Participant 2 was a 63-year-old man who had been abusing alcohol for 30 years. He is retired, married with no children and had never attempted to quit.
He said: ‘I’m pleased I’ve managed to get through both the MDMA sessions… The overall package (of the MDMA therapy course) has been put together well… I went into it expecting to feel strange.
‘It’s called Ecstasy, but it was not an ecstatic feeling… (This course) is definitely a work in progress… I’m able to identify better when I am dealing with my feelings and when I’m doing things well.
‘It’s going to take quite a while to get fully better… I don’t know how much of the changes I’ve made are due to the MDMA or due to the (non-drug) psychotherapy sessions.’
Participant 3 was a 54-year-old mother-of-three who has tried inpatient detox but failed. She has been drinking for 20 years and said she was neglected as a child and has had unstable adult relationships.
She said: ‘Better than other treatments, including inpatient detox. I enjoyed every moment of it. Thrilled to be part of the study.
‘I feel energised… The treatment has worked for me, done me a lot of good. I’ve got a lot of confidence out of it. I’m calmer.
‘It’s given me what I wanted; to be cured, to not have the cravings, to look at life differently. I’m not so angry at everything… Being under MDMA was beautiful. It showed me the real me; the me without alcohol.’
Participant 4 was a 50-year-old man with a 30-year drinking problem. He has tried to stop drinking multiple times but never succeeded. He started drinking at 15 and has used LSD, ecstasy and heroin in the past.
He said: ‘A weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I haven’t felt like that for a long time. There are no nagging doubts. I’m getting my life back on track.
‘Everything is so much clearer. It’s like a smog has been removed. I can see myself moving forward… It makes me think: why was I drinking that rubbish?
‘I was just being stupid, idiotic, killing myself. There’s no reason to be doing that… Taking part in this study has helped me focus more on life and my goals… An uplifting experience that I would recommend to anyone.’
One in four adults in England drink a harmful amount of alcohol, the researchers said, while around six per cent of men and two per cent of women are dependent.
Problem drinkers often have mental health issues such as past trauma or depression, and it could be these which MDMA helps to tackle.
Past research has found taking the drug helped people to directly engage with difficult topics or memories, or improved their motivation or confidence in their own ability to change.
MDMA is a popular drug for people to take in nightclubs and at festivals and it produces feelings of happiness and excessive affection for people around them.
People high on ecstasy may feel uninhibited and able to talk about things they usually wouldn’t, according to drugs website Frank.
This holds promise for its use in psychotherapy like that carried out in the trial.
Each of the participants had weekly hour-long therapy sessions with two experts – a consultant psychiatrist and a clinical psychologist.
And in addition to these, they had two sessions in which psychotherapy was combined with a 125mg dose of MDMA, with an optional extra 62.5mg after two hours.
According to online forums a standard party dose of the drug – known as a bomb, which is usually the powder wrapped in a cigarette paper to be swallowed whole – is around 125mg.
The patients were given the ecstasy at 10am then kept in the centre overnight, with therapy lasting six to eight hours.
After nine months all four of the people had managed to quit their problem drinking, did not experience any cravings for MDMA nor any negative side effects.
One of them, a 34-year-old man, said: ‘The MDMA healed me inside and the drinking looks after itself… I’m in control of my decisions, I’ve got control back.’
Another, a 54-year-old woman, said: ‘I feel energised… The treatment has worked for me, done me a lot of good. I’ve got a lot of confidence out of it. I’m calmer.
‘It’s given me what I wanted; to be cured, to not have the cravings, to look at life differently. I’m not so angry at everything.’
She added: ‘Being under MDMA was beautiful. It showed me the real me; the me without alcohol.’
And one added: ‘I’m able to identify better when I am dealing with my feelings and when I’m doing things well… Its going to take quite a while to get fully better.
‘I don’t know how much of the changes I’ve made are due to the MDMA or due to the (non-drug) psychotherapy sessions.’
The researchers said they would use the study as a springboard for further trials, and to devise one using a placebo drug to see if the MDMA actually has an effect.
The results of the trial were published in the medical journal BMJ Case Reports.
MDMA has in the past been tested for use as therapy for people with post-traumatic stress disorder.
And other psychedelic drugs are also being studied to see if they can bring mental health benefits, including ketamine, LSD and magic mushrooms for people with depression.
THE PSYCHEDELIC DRUGS BEING STUDIED FOR MENTAL HEALTH BENEFITS
In recent years, scientists have increasingly looked to psychedelic drugs as promising therapies for treatment-resistant mental illness.
Currently, such mind-altering drugs are largely illegal in the US.
But ongoing clinical trials suggest that drugs once beloved by hippies and club kids might have medical benefits, too.
Scientists are investigating:
The club drug and tranquilizer has been in tests for treating depression for several years.
In March 2019, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the first nasal spray version of the drug.
Ketamine works much more quickly than traditional antidepressants, and scientists believe it encourages new neural connections that can help overwrite unhealthy, depressive thought patterns.
The active ingredient in ‘magic mushrooms,’ psilocybin is a powerful hallucinogen.
It, too, acts far more quickly than traditional drugs and is being analyzed for use in patients with both depression and PTSD.
Psyilocybin helps encourage neurplasticity and is thought to quiet down the ‘default mode network’ in the brain, and activate the ‘salience network’ that is involved in medication.
In August, the FDA cleared the largest clinical trial for psilocybin to-date.
The club drug MDMA – sometimes called ‘Molly’ – is currently in trials to treat PTSD.
MDMA appears to quiet activity in the amygdala and hippocampus, regions of the brain involved in emotional processing and fear responses, which are over-active in those with PTSD.
Patients participating in MDMA trials take a dose of the drug, and remain in an eight-hour session with two therapists who guide their experience.
The psychedelic compound LSD has a similar structure to the brain chemical, serotonin.
LSD’s discovery played a role in our discovery of how serotonin works in the brain and why imbalances of the neurochemical are involved in depression and anxiety.
Trials using LSD-assisted therapy to treat anxiety are ongoing and have shown early promise.