AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Scientists are exploring a new and unconventional treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. It's the psychoactive drug MDMA. It's the main ingredient in club drugs like ecstasy or molly, and some forms of the drug are being tested in patients with PTSD. Proponents say they are getting closer to FDA approval. Reporter Will Stone has more.
WILL STONE, BYLINE: Seeing the world through dirty goggles - that's what Lori Tipton says life is like with PTSD.
LORI TIPTON: Anywhere, I would feel unsafe, and I would feel like I had to always be just vigilant because if I didn't, something bad was going to happen.
STONE: The 40-year-old describes her 20s as a catalogue of tragedy and trauma. What began when she found her brother dead from an overdose and continued when her mother killed two people and then herself in a murder-suicide.
TIPTON: I was the one who discovered their bodies in her home. As you can imagine, I completely just disassociated. I couldn't believe what I was seeing.
STONE: Not long after, Tipton was living in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit. She fled, and her place was destroyed. The following year, she was raped by a co-worker. It seemed the universe was punishing her.
TIPTON: Any time that I felt like I could trust myself, I felt like I was proven wrong.
STONE: For years, Tipton suffered from panic attacks and terrible anxiety. She tried everything - anti-depressants, hypnotherapy, meditation and yoga. Finally, she enrolled in a clinical trial that was using MDMA as part of the therapeutic process.
TIPTON: I really was at the beginning very nervous going into this and skeptical really.
STONE: MDMA-assisted psychotherapy had been studied before, but research stalled in the '80s as the club drug ecstasy became popular. The federal government reacted by designating MDMA a schedule I drug. Now research has picked up again. The treatment involves two or three day-long sessions when the patient takes a purified dose of MDMA in pill form. A specially trained therapist is there to guide and comfort the patient as needed while under the influence. After each time, there are follow-up therapy sessions without the drug to help the patient process what came up. Saj Razvi is one of those specially trained therapists.
SAJ RAZVI: MDMA allows you to contact feelings and sensations in a much more direct way.
STONE: It's not completely understood how that works. MDMA releases chemicals like serotonin and oxytocin. Those help create feelings of safety and connection. MDMA also tamps down the brain's fear response. All this together lets patients revisit traumatic memories and unpack those moments without triggering the same panic. Razvi puts it this way.
RAZVI: When we're being traumatized, we are fundamentally alone. And one of the things that MDMA does is really lets you know that you are not alone.
STONE: The early results of this approach show promise. In a trial of about 100 people, a month or two after finishing treatment, more than half no longer fit the diagnosis for PTSD. A year later, nearly 70% of the participants no longer had PTSD.
SUE SISLEY: And that was astonishing.
STONE: That's Dr. Sue Sisley, president of the Scottsdale Research Institute in Arizona.
SISLEY: Even with the best pharmaceutical regimen, you're not - you rarely ever see patients go into remission.
STONE: Sisley studies alternative treatments for PTSD.
SISLEY: The problem is we haven't had a new drug to treat PTSD in over 17 years.
STONE: It's a reality Lori Tipton knew well when she began the trial, but she noticed a shift during her sessions on MDMA. She was able to revisit the moment of her mother's death, this time without being consumed by distress. It felt transformative.
TIPTON: This is a terrible thing that happened, but carrying the fear and shame over this, it's worthless. Please stop doing that.
STONE: Other memories that had been sealed away emerged during her treatment, too.
TIPTON: Being outside in the snow with my brother when we were little, and I could remember exactly how I felt, like, that excitement.
STONE: By her last MDMA session, Tipton was even able to talk about her sexual assault. More than a year later, she no longer qualifies as having PTSD.
TIPTON: Everything's at my fingertips for me in a way that it never was before.
STONE: It's something she wants for everybody who struggles with this disease. A final round of research trials is already underway, the last required step before FDA approval.
For NPR News, I'm Will Stone.
CHANG: This story comes to us from NPR's partnership with Kaiser Health News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SEBO K'S "TRANSITIONS")