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Ecstasy being tested by military on vets with PTSD

New research suggests the use of the party drug ecstasy may be effective for even the most resistant post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

A new study, published last week in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, was conducted by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). The organization has several studies ongoing or pending in which researchers use of the lab-version ecstasy with psychotherapy to treat victims of violent crime or war.

In this new study, researchers looked at the long-term benefits for participants in a clinical trial conducted more than three years earlier.

MAPS researchers in South Carolina use MDMA, which is more commonly known as ecstasy, during closely monitored 8- to 10-hour long psychotherapy sessions.

They say 15 of 21 patients who suffered severe PTSD in the early 2000s are showing few to no symptoms today.

With these new results, the U.S. military is now testing the treatment on military veterans with treatment-resistant PTSD, according to the military website Stars and Stripes. 

The treatment could help the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs cope with the financial cost of post-combat PTSD. The agency spent about $5.5 billion on PTSD disability payments to some 275,000 veterans in 2011, according to the Stars and Stripes report.

The national trend matches the increase in local cases, according to mental health experts here in San Diego.

“With PTSD you not only remember it, you re-experience the original trauma and you really believe your life is about to end," said San Diego psychiatrist Clark Smith, M.D.

Smith has done extensive work with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Related: FAQs on PTSD

"It's like Groundhog Day and every day is horrible," Smith said.

Treatment can be difficult because many patients simply don't want to face their fears. In fact, every time a patient talks about it, they feel much worse, Smith said.

Smith said he's not surprised that the party drug could be an effective treatment because it can give the user a calming, euphoric feeling. That's why Smith said the drug could potentially help patients get past their fears.

"You re-experience the trauma in a different way, it's not so threatening for you, you have a sense of being safe and secure," he said.

Smith said there are potential problems with ecstasy, including addiction. He also pointed out that Valium can be an addictive drug but it is still used as a form of treatment.

"Any doctor will tell you that if the relationship between the risks and benefits is good,” Smith said. “The benefits are better than the risks then we want to be able to use it to help our patients."