However, in the early 1980s, MDMA fled the clinic to the dance floor, where it became known as ecstasy. In 1985 the Drug Enforcement Administration criminalized MDMA as a List I substance, defined as “currently unaccepted medical use and high potential for abuse”.

Some mental health workers continued to administer MDMA-based therapies underground, but most stopped. The number of scientists completing studies with MDMA also decreased. Some people, including Dr. Doblin, who formed his association in 1986 to focus on developing MDMA and other psychedelics into FDA-approved drugs, continued to be heavily involved in MDMA research. It took nearly two decades to overcome alarmist claims about Ecstasy’s dangers, including the fact that it had eaten holes in users’ brains, to finally get approval to start college. Animal and human studies confirm that MDMA does not cause neurotoxic effects at the doses used in clinical studies.

Ecstasy or molly, on the other hand, can be adulterated with other potentially dangerous substances, and users can take doses far higher than is safe. According to a database maintained by the Drug Abuse and Mental Health Administration up to this year, MDMA accounted for 1.8 percent of all visits to the US emergency room in 2011. In Europe, MDMA was responsible for 8 percent of drug-related emergency visits to 16 major hospitals in 10 countries from 2013 to 2014.

Scientists still do not fully understand the source of MDMA’s therapeutic effects. The substance binds to proteins that regulate serotonin, a neurotransmitter that can, among other things, lift mood. Antidepressants like Prozac bind to the same proteins and block their reabsorption of serotonin. However, MDMA continues this process and causes the proteins to pump serotonin into synapses and strengthen their chemical signal.

MDMA also increases levels of oxytocin, dopamine, and other chemical messengers and creates feelings of empathy, trust, and compassion.

The primary therapeutic effect, however, may be due to the apparent ability to reopen what neuroscientists refer to as “critical phase”, the window in childhood when the brain has the superior ability to create and recreate new memories to save. A mouse study published in Nature in 2019 found that MDMA may restore the adult brain to this earlier state of malleability.

An estimated 7 percent of the US population will suffer from PTSD at some point in their life, and up to 13 percent of combat veterans will have the disease. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs spent $ 17 billion on disability payments for over one million veterans with PTSD.