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Agony and Ecstasy

Party Drug or Breakthrough Treatment for PTSD?

Co Authors:

Amy B. Dounay
Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
Colorado College

Lori L. Driscoll
Department of Psychology
Colorado College

Phoebe M. Blessing
Department of Psychology
Colorado College

Hallie M. Comfort
Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
Colorado College

Joshua M. Mares

Colorado College


This interrupted case study explores the scientific, legal, and societal complexities of repurposing an illicit substance, 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), also known as "Ecstasy" or "Molly," into a clinically accepted medicine for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  Students first learn about the neuroanatomical basis for PTSD and its clinical distinction from anxiety and depression, and then critically evaluate the benefits and risks of a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), sertraline (brand name Zoloft), in comparison with MDMA.  The activity concludes with a panel discussion in which students assume the roles of various clinical and regulatory experts to recommend the best treatment option for the character described in the case narrative. Students will learn to identify benefits and risks of an approved medicine by reading its drug label and to critically evaluate human clinical data published in primary literature.  This case has been used in undergraduate medicinal chemistry and neuropharmacology courses and is suitable for a variety of introductory undergraduate or graduate courses in psychology, biochemistry, pharmacy, public health, and biomedical sciences.

  • Describe the causes, symptoms, prevalence, and current treatments for PTSD.
  • Understand how the actions and effects of psychoactive drugs relate to the anatomy and pharmacology of the nervous system.
  • Compare and contrast the primary pharmacology of sertraline and MDMA.
  • Understand the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) drug scheduling system and its impacts on pharmaceutical access and research.
  • Identify the potential benefits and risks of an approved pharmaceutical agent by reading its drug label.
  • Critically evaluate the pharmacological and clinical rationale for using MDMA to treat PTSD and make an informed decision regarding this controversial treatment.
  • Explain general guidelines and objectives for phase I, II, and III clinical trials.
  • Evaluate challenges and limitations of human clinical studies and critically evaluate clinical data published in primary literature.
  • Practice translating technical information from primary literature into a language that a lay person can interpret and comprehend.
Keywords: PTSD; pharmacology; ecstasy; risk-benefit analysis; drug; clinical trial; drug enforcement agency; DEA; sertraline; medicine; FDA; SSRI; psychotherapy
Topical Area: Ethics, Policy issues, Regulatory issues, Social issues
Educational Level: Undergraduate lower division, Undergraduate upper division, Graduate, Professional (degree program), Clinical education
Formats: PDF, PowerPoint
Type/Method: Analysis (Issues), Discussion, Interrupted, Journal Article, Role-Play
Language: English
Subject Headings: Biochemistry   Medicinal Chemistry   Medicine (General)   Neuroscience   Psychology   Pharmacy / Pharmacology   Public Health   Interdisciplinary Sciences  
Date Posted: 3/16/2017
Date Modified: N/A
Copyright: Copyright held by the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Please see our usage guidelines, which outline our policy concerning permissible reproduction of this work.

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