People on love drug MDMA still know who to trust

MDMA makes people more cooperative, but not gullible.

For recreational users, ecstasy has long been associated with a harmonious mindset. Now there’s research to back that up. In a new study of MDMA, ecstasy’s main ingredient, the drug indeed made people more cooperative—but only with trustworthy partners.

Conducted at King’s College London, the study is the first to examine MDMA’s impact on cooperative behavior in detail. Researchers gave twenty healthy adult men either a typical recreational dose of MDMA or a placebo. The participants then played an online game against an unseen opponent, either cooperating or competing for points. If both chose to cooperate, they both got points. But if one chose to cooperate and the other to compete, the player who chose to compete got all the points.

“We were not surprised that MDMA made people more cooperative, as that fits with subjective reports from recreational users of ecstasy,” said Mitul Mehta, who led the study. “We were surprised that MDMA only affected behavior towards trustworthy opponents.”

Although they were playing computers, participants were told their opponents were human. They evaluated how trustworthy the other “player” was by seeing how soon and frequently they chose to stop cooperating and start competing. MDMA did not affect these ratings.

The research could help develop new therapies for psychiatric conditions


Participants played the game in an MRI scanner, meaning that in addition to watching their behavior, Mehta and his colleagues could see how the drugs were affecting people’s brains. MDMA increased brain activity in multiple regions associated with social cognition, but only when the participant was receiving feedback from other players.

“This research is important to build our understanding of how drugs might alter social cognition,” said Mehta. “It has applications in testing novel drug therapies for mood and anxiety disorders. It also tells us which parts of the task a drug may alter, so we can target parts of behavior people are having difficulty with.”

Brain regions that showed increased activity on MDMA compared to placebo. Credit: King's College London

Researchers studying MDMA face regulatory obstacles


MDMA is a Schedule I drug, meaning it’s classified as having a high abuse potential and no accepted medical use. This makes it difficult to research. Special licenses and oversight are required for both the research team and the pharmacy that holds and dispenses the drugs for the study. “This is costly and time consuming,” said Mehta. “Not many groups have the support from their pharmacy and the finances to overcome these restrictions.”

But the regulatory environment for MDMA research is slowly changing. The drug’s potential as a PTSD treatment has been gaining attention, and MDMA-assisted psychotherapy was designated a breakthrough therapy last year by the US Food and Drug Administration. Mehta is encouraged by these developments: “This will hopefully make it easier to research all drugs with therapeutic potential for neurological disorders or mental illness, whether these drugs are used recreationally or not.”

 

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Featured image courtesy of Tanjila Ahmed.