Treating alcoholism with party drugs might seem like swapping one vice for another.

But a new study has found that taking MDMA could legitimately help treat alcohol addiction.

Imperial College London scientists led the trial. Researchers gave 14 alcohol addicts controlled doses of the dance drug, also known as ecstasy, during two psychotherapy sessions.

Before starting the therapy, the participants drank an average of about 130 units a week.

Just nine months later, only 21 per cent who underwent the MDMA therapy still consumed more than 14 units of alcohol per week. That compares to 75 per cent in people who had received normal NHS care.

Past trauma

The study found participants on average consumed only 18.7 units of alcohol per week after the treatment.

During the trial, the alcohol addicts received psychological support before, during and after each session. Researchers monitored their behaviour as well as physical and mental wellbeing for nine months.

The study was led by Imperial College London’s Ben Sessa. His team believes that patients with alcohol use disorder (AUD) have suffered past painful incidents or trauma which have led to their dependency on alcohol.

The science suggests that MDMA suppresses a part of the brain known as the amygdala, which allows a person to process negative memories without becoming overwhelmed.

Therapy sessions

During the study, 14 patients underwent ten psychotherapy sessions over eight weeks.

In two of the psychotherapy sessions, on weeks three and seven, researchers gave participants a dose of 125mg of MDMA, and another dose of 62.4mg two hours later.

Each therapy session was six to eight hours long. The participants mostly lay down, wearing an eye-mask and listening to music through headphones.

They were each monitored by a psychiatrist and a psychologist who encouraged patients to discuss and confront past experiences.

After being given the drug, they stayed in the hospital overnight. Once checked out, researchers telephoned them every day for a week for check-ups on their mental state.

Potential to enhance treatment

The researchers concluded: “This study demonstrates that MDMA-assisted psychotherapy can be safely delivered, is well tolerated.”

They added it “has the potential to enhance and intensify the psychotherapeutic processes in the treatment of patients with AUD.”

“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.

“It may also address symptoms of other conditions that are frequently co-morbid with harmful use of substances, particularly those symptoms associated with a history of psychological trauma.”

Nine of the 14 involved in the study were completely abstinent nine months after the treatment. But three participants relapsed to drinking more than 14 units weekly.

Professor David Nutt, lead author of the study, said: “This clinical study supports the practical experience of many leaders in psychiatry that psychedelic-assisted treatments, including MDMA for mental health disorders, have the potential to deliver significantly better outcomes for many patient groups.”

The pioneering study appeared in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. It is part of a wider move towards the idea that ‘street drugs’ alongside talking therapies could treat mental health conditions.

Researchers aim to do furthers studies to prove that the drug really is effective an effective treatment.

In a future study, researchers would give one group MDMA and another a placebo. They are trying to raise funds for further trials.

 Do you think this sort of treatment has potential?

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