Study Discovers MDMA Effects on Social Period and PTSD
A study conducted at Johns Hopkins University indicates that MDMA (more commonly known by its street name “ecstasy”) is able to return mice who had exhibited antisocial behavior to a more sociable state, similar to that which is exhibited during adolescence. The researchers believe that, if applicable to humans, the results could show the underlying reasons for why MDMA is effective in treating trauma and stressor-related disorders such as PTSD, as well as allow for the expansion of such treatments.
On April 4th 2019, the researchers from Hopkins released the results of their study. Dr. Gül Dölen of the Department of Neuroscience and Brain Science Institute explained that they used “a bunch of molecular genetic tricks” to split the mice into a social group and a solitary group. They then used a variant of Pavlovian conditioning known as conditioned-place preference (CPP), in which the mice learn to associate a given location with one of the aforementioned groups. Their preference was then measured by the time spent in that location.
This study was conducted over a period of several years, starting from when the mice were weaned together and continuing into adulthood. It was shown that most mice preferred the social area during their adolescence, a preference which decreased as the mice entered adulthood. The introduction of MDMA (3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine) occurred at this point in the experiment. After 48 hours of the drug being administered, the acute effects had clearly worn off, but the adult mice showed a clear preference for the area associated with sociability.
The theory surrounding this experiment has to do with the concept of mental plasticity. In short, the idea is that the mind is plastic (i.e. malleable; workable like clay) in terms of its responses to various inputs. At a young age, the mind is more plastic, and is thus more receptive to new stimuli. As organisms age, the mind begins to “harden” and becomes less able to change to adapt to new stimuli.
Dr. Dölen explains that adolescence, a time of increased plasticity, is a “critical period” in sociability; during this time, the learning of social behaviors feels more natural due to the high mental plasticity, as opposed to when the mind is already “hardened,” and the learning of these behaviors becomes more difficult. The study indicates that MDMA is able to return older, “hardened” minds to a younger, more plastic state, allowing for the re-learning of social behaviors. If true for humans, this could explain why the drug is able to help sufferers of PTSD, whose minds, if following this theory, have been “hardened” by traumatic events and are unable to move past their debilitating stress responses to certain stimuli. Perhaps by increasing the neuroplasticity of PTSD patients, MDMA helps them overcome the disorder and begin to resocialize.
As mentioned, MDMA is already used in the treatment of PTSD patients. However, the moral campaign around its use as a “dance drug,” as well as fears over its addictive properties and acute side effects (which includes but is not limited to paranoia, blurred vision, heightened heart rate, and sweating), has often precluded its use in the medical field. The recent study from Johns Hopkins is only the latest addition to a list of literature which not only absolves MDMA of these side effects - at least when taken in moderation - but recommends its use in the psychotherapeutic field.