Does Ecstasy Make People More Trusting?

By Victoria Kim 04/13/17
In a new study, researchers examined the effects of MDMA on a person's ability to trust.
Woman placing orange pill into her mouth.

MDMA, the main ingredient of the drug known as ecstasy, is popular in nightlife and festival settings, but there’s still not enough research about how it affects the body.

Professor David Nutt, who teaches neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, has pushed for more research. “Nearly half a million people are believed to take ecstasy or MDMA every year in the UK, but there has been very little research into what it does in the brain,” said Nutt, who is also a former chairman of the UK government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.

A new study, presented this week at the British Neuroscience Association conference, sought to explain how MDMA makes users feel more trusting and loving of others. 

Twenty men were given MDMA or a placebo, and were then hooked to a brain scanner while playing a social science game called Prisoner’s Dilemma. The men played 15 rounds with the same opponent, not knowing they were actually playing with a computer.

The game is won by racking up the most points—which depends on whether you cooperate with or betray your opponent. Betraying your opponent will win you a single round, but as the game progresses, more points are won if both players work together, explains The New Scientist.

Researcher Anthony Gabay of King’s College London observed that the men cooperated twice as often when they were given MDMA compared with a placebo. But this was only if their opponent proved to be trustworthy. 

If the opponent (the computer) betrayed a player, they would mirror that energy back—whether they were given MDMA or a placebo. As Gabay explained, “They were nice but not stupid.”

Brain scans of the players showed that MDMA boosted activity in areas of the brain linked with social behavior. Understanding the effects of MDMA can help explain how we choose to act socially, and how this is affected by depression or schizophrenia, said Gabay. 

There’s still a lot we don’t know about MDMA. In 2003, a headline in the Guardian newspaper read, “Ecstasy use triggers depression.” The article described a study that found that ecstasy “appears to tip [regular users] into clinical depression.”

About a decade later, in 2012, the same Guardian newspaper published the article: “Can MDMA help to cure depression?” The article is a feature on Professor David Nutt’s research on the effects of MDMA.

Dr. Michael Mithoefer of the Medical University of South Carolina is another prominent MDMA researcher. He is studying MDMA’s role in psychiatric treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The drug was originally used in a clinical setting by psychologists decades ago, but its increasing popularity as a club drug eventually overshadowed its therapeutic potential.

Mithoefer and fellow MDMA researchers explain that the drug itself is not a “cure” for depression or PTSD. It’s the drug’s ability to open up a person who may be closed off to talking about certain issues.

“People have horrible memories, and in psychotherapy the idea is that they should be able to talk about them,” a scientist involved in Nutt’s research explained to the Guardian. “In PTSD, when faced with that prospect, it can be so overwhelming that they can’t do it. So the rationale for using MDMA is that it allows people to open up.”

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr