Study Of MDMA-Therapy For Death-Related Anxiety Launches

Photo: Phil Wolfson, M.D.


by Aaron Kase

on April 16, 2015

A newly approved study on the effects of MDMA in reducing end-of-life anxiety for people with serious illness is moving forward, with subject screening initiated in mid-April.

Staff members preparing the study have started initiation visits, and ultimately hope to find 18 people to participate in the research.

The study, sponsored by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies(MAPS), is geared toward gathering “preliminary data about the safety and efficacy of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for anxiety in 18 subjects diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.”

MDMA is better known as ecstasy or molly, and is popularly taken in pill form at raves and concerts. However, the pure MDMA substance, which can induce euphoria and a sense of well-being while reducing feelings of anxiety, also shows enormous promise in treating mental disorders.

“Given that in this situation, spiritual, familial, psychological and existential concerns all take a position of primary and imminent importance for many people, the development of new treatment modalities to meet these needs is a clear imperative,” the study protocol states. “Enabling individuals to face life-threatening illness and all of its concomitant difficulties with dignity, creativity, love, support and kindness is the primary impetus of this research study.”

The study’s principal investigator is Phil Wolfson, M.D., a psychotherapist who previously used MDMA in his therapy sessions in the 1980s before the DEA outlawed it in 1985.

“The fundamental truth is that MDMA provides in its totality an unprecedented access to an experience that human beings value,” Wolfson wrote in a 1986 report on his experiences with substance-assisted therapy. “The second part of this truth is the almost uniform observation that those who have had the MDMA experience wish to share it with others and believe it has the power to alter lives, and even societies, positively.”

Photo: Phil Wolfson, principle study investigator.

Photo: Phil Wolfson, M.D.

Previously MAPS studies have shown that MDMA can be effective in treating PTSD, with results lasting for years, and no adverse effects on the participants.

“In a psychotherapeutic context, MDMA has been reported to help subjects lower their psychological defenses and enhance their ability to process difficult emotions,” MAPS Communication Director Brad Burge said to the Huffington Post. “It may also increase the sense of trust between subjects and the therapist.”

Researchers have had to overcome numerous hurdles to get the latest study approved, since MDMA is listed on Schedule I under the Controlled Substance Act, meaning the government considers it dangerous, subject to abuse and of no medical value. In order to move forward, the protocol applied for and last year received a green light from the Institutional Review Board, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Research Advisory Panel of California.

In March, the Drug Enforcement Agency gave researchers the go-ahead to acquire the MDMA and start the actual study.

“The smooth process of regulatory approval for this study indicates that stigma is no longer standing in the way of regulatory approval for research into the therapeutic uses of MDMA and other psychedelics,” Burge said to HuffPo. “Now, the main challenge has become finding the funding necessary to complete the research. As these studies move forward, we’ll start seeing support for psychedelic research as an opportunity, rather than a risk.”

People who are interested in participating in the study can contact Wolfson at