New study: Could MDMA-assisted therapy help military veterans with PTSD and alcohol use?

With the goal of informing more effective for treatment for military veterans with PTSD and alcohol use disorder, a study led by Brown researchers will test the effectiveness of use of the drug MDMA plus talk therapy.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — A team of Brown University researchers is launching a study to test the combined use of the drug MDMA and talk therapy as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and alcohol use disorder in military veterans. The study is the first at Brown on MDMA-assisted therapy and the first anywhere to test the treatment’s effectiveness for dual disorders, the researchers said.

“The potential of MDMA-assisted therapy is very exciting,” said Christy Capone, one of the study’s lead researchers and an assistant professor (research) of psychiatry and human behavior. “In previous studies, many people no longer met the criteria for PTSD at the end of treatment and some still didn’t have PTSD years later. That’s just mind-blowing. It’s not something we ever see with traditional PTSD treatments.”

For the study, the researchers will provide participants with two separate administrations of methylenedioxymethamphetamine, a non-addictive, mind-altering stimulant known for arousing positive feelings such as compassion and connectedness. The MDMA — more commonly known as ecstasy or molly — will be administered to participants in comfortable spaces with access to eyeshades and music and in the presence of a pair of therapists. Each session will last for eight hours and will be followed by a series of three 90-minute talk therapy sessions, with the first starting the morning after the MDMA experience.

“What’s fascinating to me is that in these sessions, therapists typically don’t need to lead participants to the trauma,” Capone said. “It comes up on its own. Patients develop a capacity to trust that their own brain will let them know what needs to be healed.”

The researchers will also use MRI brain imaging to learn how MDMA-assisted therapy affects the brain.

The therapeutic cycle of MDMA administrations and talk therapy sessions will unfold over 10 weeks. The researchers expect to wrap up the study in Spring 2025 with data available in the following months. They’re currently recruiting veterans with PTSD and alcohol use disorder to participate.

MDMA has been classified as a Schedule I controlled substance by the federal government since 1985. Schedule I drugs, substances or chemicals are defined as those with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Yet privately funded studies showed enough medical promise that in 2017, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration designated MDMA a breakthrough therapy, clearing the path for expedited drug development. 

In a recent Phase 3 randomized controlled trial of MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD (conducted by a different team of researchers), 88% of participants reported a significant reduction in symptoms, and 67% no longer met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD two months after treatment.

The Brown study is co-led by Capone; Erica Eaton, an assistant professor (research) of psychiatry and human behavior and of behavioral and social sciences; and Carolina Haass-Koffler, an associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior and of behavioral and social sciences.