Wired: MDMA Makes People Cooperative and Helps Build Trust After Betrayal

Summary: Wired reports on a recent study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, the study aimed to investigate how MDMA affects decision-making behavior. The results of the study show that MDMA noticeably increases specific parts of the brain that process other people’s intentions and beliefs, influencing decisions involved with trusting others.

Originally appearing here.

New research into the effects of drugs like MDMA could help develop more effective treatments for mental health problems

Calmness. Empathy. Love. Euphoria. These are the feelings associated with the illegal party drug MDMA (3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine), the psychoactive ingredient in ecstasy – along with altered sensations and increased energy. The round pills were (and still are, to some extent) popular with clubbers, especially those who were into electronic music – but research into MDMA’s effects suggests there might be potentially beneficial therapeutic effects.

A recent study by British scientists says that the drug’s neurochemical effects could have significant implications for treating certain psychiatric illnesses. Mitul Mehta, a neuroscientist at King’s College London, Anthony Gabay, a neuroscientist at Oxford University, and colleagues used MRI machines to scan the brains of 20 male participants who played Prisoner’s Dilemma – a video game involving two participants stuck in a tricky situation, where mutual cooperation leads to the best outcome.

The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience , involved a very small sample size – merely 20 participants. That’s not unusual for MDMA-related studies, though, because the criteria imposed on participation can be quite specific. In this study, participants had to be male, have no history of any mental illness but with previous experience of MDMA. When working with vulnerable populations, such as those who suffer from PTSD, the pool narrows even further for safeguarding reasons, which can make it difficult for scientists in the field.

“It’s quite difficult with drugs because people have such strong pre-existing views,” says Suzanne Gage, a lecturer of psychology at University of Liverpool who was not involved in the research. “I don’t think the authors would say it’s conclusive or paradigm-shifting, but it does show we need further research into these substances. It’s kind of chicken and egg – the rescheduling would lead to the larger studies, but the larger studies would show the need for rescheduling.”

Ten participants were randomly given 100 mg of MDMA and 10 received a placebo. In each round, participants were asked whether they would compete or cooperate with the other player. Then they were told about their opponent’s choice and how many points they received, and finally were asked to rate their trust in their opponent on a scale from one to seven.

The aim was to investigate how MDMA affects decision-making behaviour. The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, found that MDMA can help people become more cooperative by increasing activity in the parts of the brain that process other people’s intentions. “Anecdotally, MDMA is supposed to make you have more compassion and love for everyone, so I was actually surprised,” Gabay says. “But we found that there was actually a difference in behaviour depending on who people were interacting with.”

MDMA elicits the release of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, which causes feelings of euphoria and increased energy. Previously, ecstasy was thought to change how the brain functions generally. But this study shows that MDMA has a noticeable effect on specific parts of the brain, such as the anterior cingulate cortex that processes what other people’s beliefs or intentions are. Researchers found that the participants who had taken MDMA were more likely to work cooperatively than those who hadn’t, even after they had been “betrayed”.

Other research suggests MDMA could be effective in initial treatments for disorders that often manifest on a social level , such as autism or schizophrenia. So if experts can understand what cognitive activity is behind certain reactions, it might open up an entirely new avenue of treatment. “In psychiatric illnesses, there’s a lot of research to suggest that people are actually impaired on a social level. But we don’t fully understand the mechanisms between these interactive processes in people without those illnesses either,” says Gabay. In other words, he adds, if someone behaves “for lack of a better word, oddly, then it’s very difficult to know why that is”.

First synthesised in 1912, MDMA wasn’t always illegal – and in the 1970s, it was even used to treat depression, substance abuse, premenstrual syndrome, and for couples counselling, relaying on its empathy-enhancing effects. But because of its widespread recreational use, it was criminalised around the world. In Britain, it became illegal in 1977 after a modification to the Misuse of Drugs Act in 1971.

“Before its prohibition, pure MDMA was being developed into a safe and efficacious adjunct to psychotherapy, and the scientific community are seeing game-changing results in the treatment of PTSD with MDMA-assisted psychotherapy,” says Eddie Jacobs, science officer at the Beckley Foundation, an organisation dedicated to researching psychoactive substances.

But actually treating mental illnesses with ecstasy could be tricky – and even carrying out wide-scale research isn’t easy, due to legality and financing around the drug. Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy is very different to someone taking psychedelics, say, at a rave, says Henry Fisher, a senior chemist at The Loop, a drug testing agency. “It’s quite hard to do blue-skies research, because it doesn’t have an immediate application straight away,” he adds.

“Every human psychopharmacology intervention is expensive, that’s the main barrier,” says Ben Sessa, the lead researcher of the world’s first study into the use of MDMA in treating alcohol addiction at Bristol University.

MDMA is a so-called Schedule 1 substance – meaning it is currently labelled as having no medical value, partly because there just isn’t enough large-scale research (for legal and financial reasons). “So you have to get approval, and you have to pay for approval at the different sites where the MDMA is dispensed and where it goes, and that can cost up to four thousand pounds per site,” adds Sessa. At the moment, approval has been given for testing MDMA in alcohol addiction in Bristol in the UK, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the USA has given it breakthrough therapy designation, to be further researched for use in treating PTSD. In 2009, the Advisory Council on Drugs recommended that MDMA was downgraded to a Class B substance (Schedule 2) to make carrying out research easier , but it hasn’t happened.

More studies should be carried out to determine the use of MDMA, as much of the currently existing research is small-scale . A study carried out on octopuses at John Hopkins University, for example, found that MDMA made them friendlier. Gabay is hopeful that a surge of small-scale studies will prove the need to carry out large trials.