When bad drugs do good

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Can MDMA, aka Ecstasy or Molly, treat PTSD? A team at NYU Langone Health moves ahead with a study


  • Dr. Steven Ross, Director of Addiction Psychiatry at NYU Langone Health, a principal academic site for the MDMA trial. Photo courtesy of NYU Langone Health

It’s an ill wind that blows absolutely no good and a really bad drug that has absolutely no benefits.

The classic example is thalidomide, once banned for causing devastating birth defects, now FDA-approved to treat conditions ranging from cancers to skin lesions. Last month, researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine reported that smoking marijuana can actually improve your sex life. Last week, a New Jersey Appellate Court panel put the cherry on this pharmacological sundae by ruling it “glaringly apparent” that pot can be good medicine. There is similar good news about “magic mushrooms” whose active ingredient, psilocybin, appears to reduce anxiety and depression in cancer patients. And believe it or not, studies at the University of Cagliari (Italy) suggest that the “date rape drug” gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB) may do for alcoholics what methadone does for heroin addicts: reduce the craving.

And then there’s MDMA (methylenedioxymethamphetamine), aka Ecstasy or Molly. Some mid-20th century psychiatrists thought the drug, developed by Merck in 1912 as precursor to medicines that would control bleeding, made it easier for patients to access insights that sped relief. But MDMA soon made its way to the streets and onto the party scene, so, in 1985, DEA put it on the list of Schedule 1 drugs, those with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.

MDMA is still Schedule 1, but a growing number of researchers think it can treat PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). Based on early trials, last summer the FDA made MDMA eligible for “breakthrough therapy,” meaning it’s now possible to set up more clinical trials to test its safety and effectiveness for PTSD patients.

In previous trials sponsored by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), 65 of 107 participants with chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD got better after two months of MDMA plus talk therapy. Now MAPS is about to run a multi-site Phase 3 study of the “Efficacy and Safety of Manualized MDMA-Assisted Psychotherapy” at 14 centers in the United States plus two in Israel.

One of those trials will happen right here in New York at NYU Langone Health. Dr. Stephen Ross, Chief of Addiction Psychiatry, and his team are excited to be a principal academic site for the trial, which Ross says “further advances our history in examining new ways to diagnose and treat this devastating illness.” Yes, he adds, more study is required, but “the rapid response of the FDA earlier this year to allow this MDMA clinical trial to move to Phase 3 illustrates the optimism many people have for this research.”

Naturally, not everyone agrees. Even in a medical setting, MDMA is not without side effects: nausea, chills, sweating, muscle cramping, and blurred vision, high blood pressure, faintness, panic attacks and in severe cases, loss of consciousness and seizures. And some worry that people who hear MDMA being used as a medicine might think it’s a safe recreational drug.

While you ponder that, ponder this as well. Effective drugs sometimes arise in strange places. There’s iridium, an element found on earth but in much greater concentrations on celestial invaders like the asteroid that knocked off the dinosaurs more than 60 million years ago. British and Chinese scientists have found that iridium kills cancer cells by “filling them with a deadly version of oxygen.” So the researchers created an organic-iridium compound and lasered it into a model lung cancer cell tumor where it killed the bad but not the healthy cells.

It could be another Eureka moment like thalidomide for cancer, marijuana for good sex, psilocybin for depression, GHB for alcoholism and — if MAPS and Ross have it right — MDMA for PTSD.

Carol Ann Rinzler is the author of more than 20 books on health including “Nutrition for Dummies.” Her latest, “Is It Safe to Kiss My Cat?”, addresses the ordinary hazards of everyday life.

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