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The therapeutic use of MDMA - a MAPS conference

Last year MAPS (The Multi-disciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) held a conference in Israel on the clinical use of MDMA, MDE, and ibogaine. Researchers from all over the world, including all those who have administered MDMA to human subjects, met to discuss their findings.

As well as presenting new data, the delegates also shared knowledge on putting together carefully designed and conducted MDMA psychotherapy research studies, and highlighted three MDMA-assisted psychotherapy studies which are currently seeking approval: two studies, in Spain and Israel, on the use of MDMA in treating post-traumatic stress disorder, and the research by Dr Charles Grob in the US into MDMA-assisted psychotherapy in terminal cancer patients.

New data

• There is a full report of the conference on the MAPS website (as well as lots of other information). Here is a summary of the new data on MDMA and neuroxicity.

Dr Franz Vollenweider and his team at the University of Zurich have administered pure MDMA to MDMA-naive subjects (people who have never taken the drug before) and used PET scans to measure serotonin uptake sites in their brains. PET scans were taken before, during and one month after the subjects were given 1.5mg/kg of MDMA. No reduction of serotonin uptake sites was found at the one-month follow-up. Biological and psychological tests were also administered, and there was no evidence of functional or behavioural consequences due to MDMA.

Lew Seiden of the University of Chicago presented data from animal research showing the link between core body temperature and serotonin reductions (neurotoxicity). The clear connection between high ambient temperature and serotonin reduction has particular significance for people who take MDMA in a rave environment and underlines the need for ravers to stay cool by taking adequate rest breaks, drinking enough fluids and spending time in the chill-out.

Matt Baggott from the UC San Francisco MDMA research team has compared animal and human data in an effort to try to find out what MDMA dose in humans would cause the first signs of any long-term reductions in serotonin levels. By comparing similar blood levels rather than comparisons based on body weight, he suggests that 5mg/kg in humans is the equivalent of the lowest dose that has been shown to cause any long-term reductions in serotonin levels in rats. 5mg/kg in a 150 pound person is 340mg. MAPS point out that this figure is not the same as the highest dose that will not neurotoxicity, which is not known. In addition, there are certain difficulties with this data - the rat data was collected under a variety of conditions, and environmental factors, such as ambient temperature, may have contributed to neurotoxic effects in some cases.

Dr Efi Gouzalis-Mayfrank has compared MDMA-using ravers with two control groups. One group had used cannabis but not MDMA and the other group used no drugs at all. The MDMA-using group performed slightly lower in certain subsets of memory and executive functions but at a clinically insignificant level - neither the subjects or the testers could tell the groups' apart in normal social situations. The usual caveats to MDMA memory studies apply: ravers might eat less, sleep less and take a wider range of other substances than the control groups as a result of their lifestyle, all or any of which could be a factor in lower performances in tests.

MAPS concludes: "In summary, there are no data showing that one or few doses of MDMA in a clinical research context bear substantial risks for long-term harms from possible neurotoxicity"

Go to the full report