Usually known as a dangerous party drug, MDMA is now being investigated as a possible treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is diagnosed when a patient has suffered a traumatic event in the past, such as combat, an assault, or a serious accident, and that trauma revisits the patient long after the event. Even years after the fact, PTSD patients may suffer from anxiety, panic attacks, and increased aggression. Sometimes, people don’t realize they were even traumatized until they experience PTSD symptoms, and often therapy alone isn’t enough to heal them. Sadly, the condition is strongly linked to depression and suicide.

There is some evidence that MDMA might be a further tool in the treatment of PTSD. It seems to calm some patients enough to work through their symptoms in their usual therapy sessions. Though the studies are brand new and the results have yet to be thoroughly interpreted, anecdotally, some patients report that the use of MDMA has helped them overcome their PTSD. They say that the drug allows them to face their memories in a more relaxed, open state, and then to slowly move on from them. The treatment lets them reflect on their past without getting trapped in the terror it includes.

How MDMA Can Help

MDMA has long been a strictly controlled substance in the US, and its use (outside of approved studies) is illegal, though it remains a popular recreational drug. The form of the drug used in these studies, however, is rather different from the “molly” or “ecstasy” you hear about in news stories. It’s produced in a purer form in a laboratory, and only administered under carefully controlled conditions. It is always used in conjunction with therapy.

The drug seems to decrease activity in the amygdala, an area of the brains that processes feelings of fear, and to increase activity in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. Researchers believe that this shift allows patients increased access to “emotional material” that their PTSD normally blocks them from processing. It also increases the presence of serotonin, a compound linked to feelings of happiness, as well as serum oxytocin, which has been linked to feelings of “bonding” with other people. Of course, there is a worry that patients could develop a dependency on the drug if treated with it over an extended period of time. During studies, MDMA has not signs of causing negative cognitive effects in trial participants, but it’s impossible to foresee long-term effects. More research is needed to confirm MDMA’s benefits for sufferers of PTSD, but for now, the early signs look promising.