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Study Shows MDMA Enhances Emotional Response to Positive Social Interactions

Study Shows MDMA Enhances Emotional Response to Positive Social Interactions

The psychedelic MDMA may enhance the emotional response to positive social interactions, according to the results of a recently published study. The findings suggest that MDMA may have the potential to influence social perception and could one day be used to treat conditions characterized by impaired social processing.

MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine), commonly known as ecstasy or molly, is a drug with distinct psychoactive effects on emotion, perception and feelings of social connection. The drug is categorized as an empathogen, indicating that it can promote feelings of emotional well-being, empathy and a desire to connect socially with others. 

When taken, MDMA’s pharmacological action results in the release of neurotransmitters including serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. These unique effects of MDMA have led researchers to investigate the drug’s therapeutic potential when combined with psychotherapy to treat mental health conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

In a recent study published by the Journal of Psychopharmacology, researchers investigated the role of social processing in mental health. Impairments in social processing can impact a person’s ability to maintain social relationships and effectively function in society and can increase the severity of conditions such as schizophrenia, mood disorders and autism. But despite the importance, there are no drugs that are effective at treating social processing disorders across a range of mental health conditions.

“MDMA is known as a ‘prosocial’ compound, and there is accumulating evidence that it works to enhance psychotherapy in the treatment of PTSD,” study author Anya Bershad, an assistant professor of psychiatry at UCLA, told PsyPost. “Yet little is known about how the drug actually affects the way individuals experience social interactions. We wanted to test the effects of the drug on one discrete component of the social interaction by asking the question, how does MDMA affect mood when individuals are explicitly told they are liked or disliked by another person?”

Bershad and a team of researchers conducted a double-blind, placebo-controlled study to investigate the effects of MDMA on social processing. Study participants were aged 18 to 40 and had some experience with MDMA before the study to ensure their familiarity with the effects of the drug. Before the research began, the 36 study participants completed a screening process that included physical exams and psychiatric interviews to ensure they were not currently experiencing medical conditions or psychiatric disorders.

To complete the study, each participant attended four separate sessions during which researchers administered a single dose of either a placebo, MDMA at one of two doses (0.75 mg/kg or 1.5 mg/kg), or methamphetamine (20 mg), in randomized order, before completing a social feedback task. The protocol was designed to compare the effects of different doses of MDMA with a non-active placebo as well as an active stimulant to reveal MDMA’s impact on social processing.

The social feedback task was designed to simulate social interactions in a controlled laboratory setting. Participants first created online profiles before selecting the online profiles of others they were interested in connecting with, based on the brief descriptions and photographs contained in their profiles. During the sessions, participants received feedback to indicate whether the individuals they selected liked them, suggesting acceptance, or did not like them, suggesting rejection.

The findings showed that study participants who received higher doses of MDMA reported increased feelings of happiness and acceptance when they received positive social feedback compared to the placebo. The increased feelings of acceptance and happiness while receiving positive feedback provide further evidence of the empathogenic properties of MDMA and suggest the drug has the potential to positively influence social interactions. The researchers did not observe a significant decrease in negative reactions to social rejection with the administration of MDMA, suggesting that the drug may have a limited impact on negative emotions experienced in social situations.

“The important takeaway from this study is that we’ve shown that MDMA helps people feel more positively about receiving social feedback,” Bershad said. “This could be one way the drug acts to facilitate social connection and therapeutic rapport in the context of psychotherapy.”

When study subjects were administered methamphetamine as a comparison drug, the researchers did not observe a significant impact on the emotional response to social interaction, suggesting that MDMA has unique properties in this regard. MDMA’s distinct impact on social processing may mean the drug has therapeutic potential beyond the stimulant effects of similar drugs.

“One important thing to keep in mind is that while our findings may have implications for the clinical use of MDMA, they also suggest a way in which the drug may make individuals particularly vulnerable,” Bershad noted. “Increasing positive mood in response to social feedback could facilitate therapeutic alliance on the one hand, but on the other, it may put individuals at risk of being taken advantage of in certain social contexts.”

The researchers note that the findings of the study suggest that MDMA’s effects on social processing may lead to new treatments for related mental health conditions.

“We hope to continue to study the specifics of how MDMA affects social perception and behavior and to use this information to understand which types of psychotherapeutic techniques may be most effectively used with the drug in clinical settings,” Bershad said.

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