Can MDMA cure diseases like PTSD?

A look at Professor David Nutt's work on beneficial drug treatments.

Photo Credit:Karolinska Institutet

This past Thursday, Professor David Nutt came to the campus for a talk hosted by The York Union titled: ‘Liberalising drug laws to help our brains’. Professor Nutt, a neuropsychopharmacologist at Imperial College London, has spent his career studying the brain and is a strong advocate for reform of the global regime on drugs. 

Current drug laws, he argues, strangle the advance of medical science, especially in the treatment of mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. His research has indicated that currently illegal drugs, such as cannabis, psilocybin, and MDMA, could have revolutionary clinical applications but prejudicial state restrictions mean countless patients continue to suffer unnecessarily.

Professor Nutt shot to international fame when he was fired in 2009 by then Labour Home Secretary Alan Johnson from his government post of Chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs for publicly arguing that alcohol and tobacco are more harmful than LSD, ecstasy and cannabis. 

His firing unexpectedly captured headlines across the world and he used this platform to continue to fight public misconceptions about and government policy on drugs. 

In 2013, he was awarded the John Maddox Prize for “promoting science and evidence on a matter of public interest, despite facing difficulty and hostility in doing so” for his actions. Nutt has been continuing to pioneer research into the potential applications of currently illegal drugs in medicine.

In a study co-authored by Nutt a published in The Lancet in 2010, 20 drugs were ranked using multiple-criteria decision analysis in order of harmfulness according to 16 metrics. These metrics were split between harms to the user and harms to others. Some harms to the user included drug-specific or related mortality, impaired mental functioning, and dependence. Some harms to others included injury, crime, and impact on family life.

The study found that alcohol is the most harmful drug by a considerable margin, followed by heroin, crack cocaine, and methamphetamine. The three least harmful were psilocybin mushrooms, buprenorphine, LSD, and MDMA. Alcohol was given an overall harmfulness of 72, twelve times more harmful than psilocybin mushrooms at 6. There was no correlation between current drug classifications in law and harmfulness.

Not only did the study demonstrate that current drug laws have no relation to harms, other research conducted by Nutt has demonstrated that controlled substances have exciting clinical potential. Cannabis, for example, has potential applications for patients with sleep disorder-cancer, whilst psilocybin can be used to alleviate depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and even cluster headaches. Current regulations, however, make such drugs almost impossible to research to determine their full potential.

During his talk, Nutt called this stifling of research “the worst censorship of research since the banning of the telescope by the Catholic Church”. A study 2014 conducted into MDMA indicated that subjective perceptions of positive memories increased whilst perceptions of negative or traumatic memories were less bad. This was due to decreased brain blood flow to the hippocampus and amygdala.

MDMA, which is illegal in most countries worldwide, may have beneficial effects on some medical conditions.

Photo Credit: DEA

He emphasised that, unlike for recreational use, the clinical use of the drug remained gruelling but crucially more effective than other treatments. With many veterans suffering from PTSD and the most severe refugee crisis since the Second World War occurring in Syria with similar crises across the world, further research in this field is needed more than ever. Securing funding, however, is near impossible as MDMA is a controlled substance. Scientists must rely on private funding, which Nutt secured from Channel 4 to study MDMA for a live programme in 2012.

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