Could this drug one day come out of the club and onto your therapist’s couch?

COMMENT

If you’ve ever seen someone in a club on MDMA, it may not surprise you to hear it’s linked to a heightened ability to share other people’s feelings and emotions. Yet in our new study, we found that even when the effects have faded, mild MDMA users showed greater empathy than people who use other common recreational drugs, such as cannabis, cocaine and ketamine.

MDMA (also known as “ecstasy” or “molly”) is used in rave culture because it increases energy and makes people feel euphoric and sociable. Recently, though, researchers have been looking at how the pure form of MDMA can be used in therapy to treat mental health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder, alcohol addiction and more, according to 2018 studies published in journals such as Lancet Psychiatry and Neuropharmacology.

Recent trials featured in the Journal of Psychopharmacology have shown that when used alongside psychotherapy, MDMA can treat post-traumatic stress in people who have not responded to any other treatments, and these improvements can still be seen many months after treatment. It is thought that the effect of MDMA enables patients to think about very difficult memories that are often too painful to address, helping them to recover.

[Watch] This is your brain on MDMA

Other researchers have been looking at how MDMA can be used to help autistic people by reducing social anxiety and increasing social adaptability, 2018 research published in the journal Psychopharmacology shows. MDMA-assisted psychotherapy also has been suggested to help with addictions, such as alcoholism, similarly recent studies published in the journal Neuropharmacology argue.

But little research has investigated the longer-term impact of using MDMA on how we get on with other people. It’s important to understand this if we’re looking to use the drug in a therapeutic setting, as most psychological disorders involve difficulty in interacting with others. We also found in our study that mild MDMA users were no more distressed than alcohol users after being socially excluded, contrary to previous concerns that MDMA use would heighten social distress and anxiety in the long term.

Our study involved 67 young people, 25 of whom used MDMA, 19 who used other drugs and 23 who only used alcohol. We assessed empathy by using a questionnaire and a computer task. In the questionnaire, the MDMA users rated higher in empathy and sympathy for others (known as “emotional empathy”) than the other drug users, who mainly used cannabis, cocaine and ketamine, according to our results published in February in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. 

During the computer task, the MDMA users were also better at correctly identifying the emotions of others (known as “cognitive empathy”).

The MDMA users in our study used the drug about once a month. This level of use is about the same as what could be used for therapy, so looking at this group is more informative than looking at heavy users to figure out the longer-term effects of MDMA as a treatment. But the people in this group were recreational users, meaning they bought MDMA off the street. Street MDMA is often contaminated with other substances, so it can vary in purity. In a therapeutic setting, MDMA would be used in its pure form. Alongside psychotherapy, patients would be given a standard dose in a controlled setting and would be closely monitored and guided by a therapist.


The findings from our study do not mean that using MDMA makes people more empathetic as it is highly possible that more empathetic people who use drugs are drawn to MDMA due to its sociable effects (meaning that there could be preexisting differences in empathy). 

To truly see whether MDMA can increase empathy in the long term, a study would need to assess people before using drugs and would need to look at changes in empathy over time.

Nevertheless, this study is important because understanding the longer-term effects of using MDMA is pivotal in determining whether it can be used as a viable treatment for mental health disorders. The Conversation

Molly Carlyle is a PhD candidate specialising in addiction and psychopharmacology at the University of Exeter This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Molly Carlyle
Guest Author
Advertising

The recovered remain cautious

People who have survived Covid-19 are not going through life carefree. They are still taking all the preventative measures

Lockdown relief scheme payouts to employees tops R14-billion

Now employers and employees can apply to the Unemployment Insurance Fund for relief scheme payments
Advertising

Press Releases

Covid-19 and Frontline Workers

Who is caring for the healthcare workers? 'Working together is how we are going to get through this. It’s not just a marathon, it’s a relay'.

PPS webinar Part 2: Small business, big risk

The risks that businesses face and how they can be dealt with are something all business owners should be well acquainted with

Call for applications for the position of GCRO executive director

The Gauteng City-Region Observatory is seeking to appoint a high-calibre researcher and manager to be the executive director and to lead it

DriveRisk stays safe with high-tech thermal camera solution

Itec Evolve installed the screening device within a few days to help the driver behaviour company become compliant with health and safety regulations

Senwes launches Agri Value Chain Food Umbrella

South African farmers can now help to feed the needy by donating part of their bumper maize crop to delivery number 418668

Ethics and internal financial controls add value to the public sector

National treasury is rolling out accounting technician training programmes to upskill those who work in its finance units in public sector accounting principles

Lessons from South Korea for Africa’s development

'Leaders can push people through, through their vision and inspiration, based on their exemplary actions'

Old Mutual announces digital AGM

An ambitious plan to create Africa’s biggest digital classroom is intended to address one of the continent’s biggest challenges — access to education

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday