ECSTASY'S GOOD SIDE
The much-maligned drug may ease the anxieties of the terminally ill.
People dying of incurable diseases are often crippled by depression, fear and anxiety. But the drugs that offer relief for those problems can be overly sedating, making patients mentally foggy.
A long-outlawed treatment may be the answer.
Within the next few months, a group of late-stage cancer patients will be given an illicit party drug to see if it can help them come to terms with their situation. That chemical is MDMA, better known as Ecstasy. "There are so few palliative care options for the terminally ill," says Dr. John H. Halpern, a psychiatrist who will be conducting this research at Harvard University's McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. "And there is anecdotal evidence that MDMA can help them resolve the anxieties they experience without doping them up on tranquilizers."
The study is part of a resurgence in research into the therapeutic uses of psychedelics for severe psychiatric ills that don't respond to traditional treatment. Because of the chemicals' profound ability to alter perception and mood, scientists hope they will melt the psychological barriers that prevent patients from getting better.
"We stand to learn a lot from these drugs, and I hope that the judicious application of this new knowledge would decrease suffering in people who have mental illnesses," says Dr. Francisco A. Moreno, a psychiatrist at the University of Arizona in Tucson who has done psychedelic research.
The study of Ecstasy for the terminally ill will involve 12 cancer patients who have less than a year to live. They'll receive varying doses during two strictly supervised therapeutic sessions. The drug, once hailed as "penicillin for the soul," is a chemical cousin to amphetamines that reportedly induces feelings of profound empathy.
It will be combined with traditional psychotherapy, and, Halpern hopes, "enable them to open up in therapy so they can talk about challenging issues and resolve their grief."
Halpern's work was inspired by studies in the 1960s and early '70s that revealed that the use of psychedelics in the terminally ill reduced anxiety, improved rapport with close friends and family, and diminished the need for narcotics.
"It was one of the most promising areas of psychedelic research," says Dr. Charles Grob, a psychiatrist at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance, "and one of the most unfortunate casualties of the hippie revolution because mainstream psychiatry still does not have good treatments for people with end-stage illness who have tremendous anxiety."
Because of stringent controls on psychedelics, this research came to a standstill. But Halpern hopes the recent wave of FDA-sanctioned studies will eventually legitimize the therapeutic use of psychedelics.
"We're doctors and this is all about trying to heal people," he says.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX) A growing body of hallucinogen research Other psychedelic drugs besides Ecstasy also may have the potential to treat psychiatric illnesses.
MDMA and psilocybin (the active ingredient in "magic mushrooms") are now in government-approved studies for obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety.
Even the granddaddy of hallucinogens, LSD, widely researched in the 1950s and early '60s to combat depression, schizophrenia, alcoholism and drug addiction, may soon be tested as a treatment for debilitating cluster headaches.
At Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, researchers are testing psilocybin, which is milder than MDMA, for its ability to reduce stress and help end-stage cancer patients face death. The ongoing study will eventually encompass 20 volunteers, though only three have been tested so far.
Last year, researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston began a study of Ecstasy as a treatment for 20 people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
And in December, University of Arizona scientists completed an experiment using psilocybin on nine patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder who failed to improve with standard treatments.
Preliminary data is "encouraging," says Dr. Francisco Moreno, who expects the final results within the year.