It is no newsflash to reveal MDMA generates positive sensations of empathy for a short period after it has been consumed. However, despite little study, it has been hypothesized that over a longer period of use the drug may have a contradictory effect, disrupting the brain's natural serotonin pathways resulting in social distress.
As MDMA sits on the precipice of being legally approved as a clinical treatment for PTSD in the United States, a team of researchers from the University of Exeter set out to try to better understand what long-term effects the drug has on a person's ability to emotionally empathize with others. The study recruited 67 subjects: 25 poly-drug users that included mild long-term MDMA consumption, 19 poly-drug users that included consumption of substances including cannabis and cocaine but not MDMA, and 23 subjects with no recreational drug use other than alcohol consumption.
"It has been suggested that MDMA, combined with therapy, might be an effective treatment for psychological trauma and alcoholism, but it has previously been suggested that MDMA may cause heightened social distress," explains lead author on the study, Molly Carlyle. "We recruited long-term but mild users (a minimum of 10 times), in order to reflect doses that may be used for medical purposes."
Using an array of computerized tests and questionnaires, the study evaluated each participant's cognitive and emotional empathy. Essentially, the research was examining how well participants can both intellectually understand another person's emotional state, and also how much they can subjectively relate to it.
The results showed that mild MDMA users displayed significantly greater emotional and cognitive empathy when compared to the non-MDMA poly-drug group. Interestingly, there was little difference in results between the MDMA group and the alcohol group. This latter finding suggests it is difficult to conclude that MDMA actually enhanced a user's empathetic potential over the long-term, but it can be argued that mild, long-term MDMA use does not damage a person's social functioning.
"We cant say whether differences in empathy are due to taking MDMA, or whether there were already differences in the people who use MDMA and those who don't before they started taking the drug," says Celia Morgan, senior author on the new research. "But importantly this study suggests that MDMA may be used safely as a treatment without side effects on these crucial social processes."
There are undoubtedly limitations to this kind of research – relying on self-reported recreational drug use certainly results in a lack of control over product purity, for example. As the researchers do fairly note, there is no way to understand at this point whether MDMA simply appeals to more empathetic recreational drug users, as opposed to actually increasing a person's inherent empathy. However, the research does add to a growing body of evidence suggesting the drug does not result in long-term damage to psychosocial functioning, which is something that is vital to establish if it is ultimately going to move into common clinical uses.
The new study was published in the journal Journal of Psychopharmacology.
Source: University of Exeter
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