Some scientists believe that the drug MDMA (ecstasy), which is known to increase feelings of social connection and empathy, may have psychotherapeutic benefits for those with disorders often associated with a lack of feeling connected to others, such as in schizophrenia, autism, or antisocial personality disorder.
Up until now, scientists have had a hard time objectively measuring the effects of this drug, and there has been very little research in humans. Researchers from the University of Chicago, who conducted research on healthy volunteers, have reported their new findings in the current issue of Biological Psychiatry.
“We found that MDMA produced friendliness, playfulness, and loving feelings, even when it was administered to people in a laboratory with little social contact. We also found that MDMA reduced volunteers’ capacity to recognize facial expressions of fear in other people, an effect that may be involved in the increased sociability said to be produced by MDMA,” said author Dr. Gillinder Bedi.
These findings suggest that MDMA makes others appear more attractive and friendly, and this may be the reason for its popularity as a recreational drug.
Furthermore, it makes others appear less intimidating, which may allow an individual to feel more confident in social risk-taking.
The current research backs the findings of previous research that has shown that MDMA may have a role in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which found MDMA promotes emotional engagement; strengthens the bond between the patient and doctor, known as the therapeutic alliance; decreases emotional avoidance; and improves tolerance for recall and processing of painful memories.
“Within the context of treatment, these effects may promote intimacy among people who have difficulty feeling close to others,” said Dr. John Krystal, editor of Biological Psychiatry.
“However, MDMA distorts one’s perception of others rather than producing true empathy. Thus, MDMA may cause problems if it leads people to misinterpret the emotional state and perhaps intentions of others.”
A study in 2005 in the Danish Medical Bulletin found that MDMA may also be useful for the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.
Further studies in controlled settings will be necessary before MDMA can be considered for use as a psychotherapeutic drug. However, these findings emphasize the importance of understanding how different drugs affect social experiences, since abused drugs are often used in social situations.
This study was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.