After a few doses of the drug and psychotherapy, there were almost no signs of relapse. In comparison, around 8 in 10 alcoholics relapse after existing treatments.
Although they are still illegal in virtually all countries, psychoactive drugs have been regarded with more and more interest by doctors, due to their potential in treating various mental conditions. MDMA, for instance, has been branded as a “breakthrough treatment” for PTSD, and has been shown to make people more social. In this pioneering study, consumption of MDMA (commonly known as “ecstasy”) has been shown to be safe in controlled conditions — and it has also shown potential in treating alcoholism.
The World Health Organization estimates that as of 2010, there are 208 million people with alcoholism worldwide. Around 17 million of them are in the United States — a whopping 7% of all adults. Treatments are varied because alcoholism is a multifaceted condition, but they are rarely very effective. Most treatments focus on helping people eliminate their alcohol intake, followed up with life training and/or social support to help them. This new treatment follows a similar approach, with an MDMA twist.
Alcoholism, like all forms of addiction, is usually based on an underlying trauma. If you are only eliminating alcohol consumption, you’re just treating the symptom, and the underlying condition is still there — and is very likely to rear its head again. This is what the MDMA does: it addresses the core issue.
“MDMA selectively impairs the fear response,” says Dr. Ben Sessa, an addiction psychiatrist and senior research fellow at Imperial College London, and who led the trial. “It allows recall of painful memories without being overwhelmed,” he told The Guardian.
The trial carried out in Bristol, UK, tested whether a combination of a few doses of the drug and psychotherapy can help patients overcome alcoholism effectively. It was only a small study, with 11 participants. However, the results are impressive.
Out of the 11 participants, none exhibited any significant side effects because of the treatment. Out of them, just one relapsed.
“We’ve got one person who has completely relapsed, back to previous drinking levels, we have five people who are completely dry and we have four or five who have had one or two drinks but wouldn’t reach the diagnosis of alcohol use disorder,” Sessa said.
Although it’s a small study and results need to be replicated on a larger sample size, the results are promising and warrant further investigation.
It’s also important to note that the drug was consumed in controlled settings, in a hospital, alongside a psychiatrist and a psychologist. Participants are given the drug and then spend 8 hours mostly lying down, with eyeshades and headphones. Patients also stay in the hospital overnight and have their sleep patterns monitored after going home.
“There is no black Monday, blue Tuesday, or whatever ravers call it. In my opinion, that is an artefact of raving. It’s not about MDMA,” said Sessa.