Study reveals how ecstasy acts on the brain and hints at therapeutic uses

January 17, 2014

Brain imaging experiments have revealed for the first time how ecstasy produces feelings of euphoria in users.

Results of the study at Imperial College London, parts of which were televised in Drugs Live on Channel 4 in 2012, have now been published in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

The findings hint at ways that ecstasy, or MDMA, might be useful in the treatment of anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

MDMA has been a popular recreational drug since the 1980s, but there has been little research on which areas of the brain it affects. The new study is the first to use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) on resting subjects under its influence.

Twenty-five volunteers underwent brain scans on two occasions, one after taking the drug and one after taking a placebo, without knowing which they had been given.

The results show that MDMA decreases activity in the limbic system – a set of structures involved in emotional responses. These effects were stronger in subjects who reported stronger subjective experiences, suggesting that they are related.

Communication between the medial temporal lobe and , which is involved in emotional control, was reduced. This effect, and the drop in activity in the limbic system, are opposite to patterns seen in patients who suffer from anxiety.

MDMA also increased communication between the amygdala and the hippocampus. Studies on patients with PTSD have found a reduction in communication between these areas.

The project was led by David Nutt, the Edmond J. Safra Professor of Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, and Professor Val Curran at UCL.

Dr Robin Carhart-Harris from the Department of Medicine at Imperial, who performed the research, said: "We found that MDMA caused reduced blood flow in regions of the brain linked to emotion and memory. These effects may be related to the feelings of euphoria that people experience on the drug."

Professor Nutt added: "The findings suggest possible clinical uses of MDMA in treating anxiety and PTSD, but we need to be careful about drawing too many conclusions from a study in . We would have to do studies in patients to see if we find the same effects."

MDMA has been investigated as an adjunct to psychotherapy in the treatment of PTSD, with a recent pilot study in the US reporting positive preliminary results.

As part of the Imperial study, the volunteers were asked to recall their favourite and worst memories while inside the scanner. They rated their favourite memories as more vivid, emotionally intense and positive after MDMA than placebo, and they rated their worst memories less negatively. This was reflected in the way that parts of the brain were activated more or less strongly under MDMA. These results were published in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology.

Dr Carhart-Harris said: "In healthy volunteers, MDMA seems to lessen the impact of painful memories. This fits with the idea that it could help patients with PTSD revisit their traumatic experiences in psychotherapy without being overwhelmed by negative emotions, but we need to do studies in PTSD patients to see if the drug affects them in the same way."

Explore further: First study into the effects of MDMA on the resting brain

More information: R.L. Carhart-Harris et al. 'The Effects of Acutely Administered 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine on Spontaneous Brain Function in Healthy Volunteers Measured with Arterial Spin Labelling and Blood Oxygen Level-Dependent Resting-State Functional Connectivity.' Biological Psychiatry, 2014. dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2013.12.015

R. L. Carhart-Harris et al. 'The effect of acutely administered MDMA on subjective and BOLD-fMRI responses to favourite and worst autobiographical memories.' International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, 2013. dx.doi.org/10.1017/S1461145713001405

Related Stories

First study into the effects of MDMA on the resting brain

July 24, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- Researchers from UCL and Imperial College London are carrying out a neuroscience study to examine for the first time how the resting brain responds to MDMA, the pure form of the Class A drug ecstasy. The ...

Follow-up study finds lasting benefit from MDMA for people with PTSD

November 21, 2012
(Medical Xpress)—A research team made up of a group of private practitioners and medical experts has conducted a follow-up study of a trial of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) use in therapy sessions to treat Post ...

Ecstasy use on rise again among U.S. teens

December 3, 2013
(HealthDay)—The number of U.S. teens who wind up in the emergency room after taking the club drug Ecstasy has more than doubled in recent years, raising concerns that the hallucinogen is back in vogue, federal officials ...

Recommended for you

Talking to yourself can help you control stressful emotions

July 26, 2017
The simple act of silently talking to yourself in the third person during stressful times may help you control emotions without any additional mental effort than what you would use for first-person self-talk – the way people ...

Heart rate study tests emotional impact of Shakespeare

July 26, 2017
In a world where on-screen violence has become commonplace, Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company is turning to science to discover whether the playwright can still make our hearts race more than 400 years on.

Do all people experience similar near-death-experiences?

July 26, 2017
No one really knows what happens when we die, but many people have stories to tell about what they experienced while being close to death. People who have had a near-death-experience usually report very rich and detailed ...

Risk for bipolar disorder associated with faster aging

July 26, 2017
New King's College London research suggests that people with a family history of bipolar disorder may 'age' more rapidly than those without a history of the disease.

Visual clues we use during walking and when we use them

July 25, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—A trio of researchers with the University of Texas and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has discovered which phase of visual information processing during human walking is used most to guide the feet accurately. ...

Toddlers begin learning rules of reading, writing at very early age, study finds

July 25, 2017
Even the proudest of parents may struggle to find some semblance of meaning behind the seemingly random mish-mash of letters that often emerge from a toddler's first scribbled and scrawled attempts at putting words on paper.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.