A new study from the University of Chicago suggests that the drug Ecstasy causes the brain to respond more strongly to positive social input, creating a “socially selective” effect that values social rewards over non-social rewards.
The social effects of methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), popularly known as Ecstasy, are well known. Ecstasy users report heightened feelings of friendliness, warmth and empathy toward other people, in addition to other positive feelings such as mental alertness, heightened sensory perception and anxiety relief.
However, the University of Chicago study is among the first to examine the way MDMA influences responses to different types of positive stimuli. The researchers set out to discover whether the drug heightens positive responses to all emotional stimuli or whether it creates a distinct preference for positive social stimuli.
The researchers recruited 101 healthy adults (58 male and 43 female) between the ages of 18 and 35. Participants were administered either MDMA or a placebo in a double-blind format in which neither the study subjects nor the researchers knew which participants received the drug and which the placebo.
The participants were shown a variety of pictures from the International Affective Picture System. The pictures contained positive, negative and neutral emotional images, and some also included social content (pictures of at least two people or parts of two people, such as hands). The participants rated the pictures based on their positive or negative reactions and each picture’s ability to stimulate emotional arousal.
Results Show Clear Preference for Social Content
Based on previous knowledge of the nature of MDMA, the Chicago researchers hypothesized that the drug would create stronger positive responses to positive emotional images, with a preference for images with social content.
However, the team found that the bias in favor of social content was even stronger after a dose of MDMA than they had expected. Instead of showing an increased preference for all pictures containing positive images, the participants who took Ecstasy demonstrated an increased preference for only those images that also contained social content, while showing a decreased preference for non-social positive images.
In rodent studies, results have suggested that MDMA was likely to produce stronger positive responses to all rewarding stimuli even if it was non-social in nature. While rodents are good stand-ins for humans in many respects, the concluding discussion of the University of Chicago study speculates that this difference may result from species differences in social organization and social connections.
No ‘Dampening’ of Negative Reactions
One result from the new study many have implications for the use of Ecstasy as a therapeutic tool. The enhanced feelings of well-being and decreased anxiety that result from MDMA have led some people to propose using the drug in psychotherapy. The idea is that the drug could help people to revisit painful experiences without experiencing extreme negative emotions during this re-visiting process.
However, the University of Chicago study did not show a “dampening” of responses to images with negative content. The research found no significant alteration in the emotional arousal resulting from negative stimuli between those who took MDMA and those who took the placebo. As a result, the ability of MDMA to alter perceptions of negative experiences, and its usefulness as a psychotherapeutic tool, remains unclear.
In order for MDMA to be seriously considered as a therapeutic device, research needs to justify its use by clearly demonstrating that the potential benefits outweigh the potential negative effects. Reported negative effects following Ecstasy use include anxiety, sadness, aggression, impulsiveness, irritability, sleep disturbances and reduced mental abilities.