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How could MDMA (ecstasy) help anxiety disorders? A neurobiological rationale

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Abstract

Exposure therapy is known to be an effective treatment for anxiety disorders. Nevertheless, exposure is not used as much as it should be, and instead patients are often given supportive medications such as serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and benzodiazepines, which may even interfere with the extinction learning that is the aim of treatment. Given that randomized controlled trials are now investigating a few doses of ±3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA, ‘ecstasy’) in combination with psychotherapy for treatment-resistant anxiety disorders, we would like to suggest the following three mechanisms for this potentially important new approach: 1) MDMA increases oxytocin levels, which may strengthen the therapeutic alliance; 2) MDMA increases ventromedial prefrontal activity and decreases amygdala activity, which may improve emotional regulation and decrease avoidance and 3) MDMA increases norepinephrine release and circulating cortisol levels, which may facilitate emotional engagement and enhance extinction of learned fear associations. Thus, MDMA has a combination of pharmacological effects that, in a therapeutic setting, could provide a balance of activating emotions while feeling safe and in control, as described in case reports of MDMA-augmented psychotherapy. Further clinical and preclinical studies of the therapeutic value of MDMA are indicated.

Johansen, P. Ø., & Krebs, T. S. (2009). How could MDMA (ecstasy) help anxiety disorders? A neurobiological rationale. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 23(4), 389-391. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0269881109102787
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