Club kids, ravers and lovers of party drugs have attested to the power of MDMA (also known as ecstasy or molly) for decades, namely that it breaks down the social barriers and helps people to be more open and accepting of those around them.
Now, as researchers continue looking at the MDMA as a potential psychotherapy tool, a new study affirms that the drug boosts feelings of connectedness. Researchers suggest that this finding could be extremely useful as it pertains to MDMA-assisted therapy.
Published in the journal Nature, the study’s findings “demonstrate an important new dimension of the pro-social effects of MDMA,” according to researchers. The study was small, with only 18 participants who were either dosed with MDMA or a placebo and asked to chat with a stranger.
Researchers confirmed that MDMA “led to robust increase in feelings of connection” among participants socializing in the controlled setting.
Observing the Social Effects of MDMA
Researchers admit that the effects of MDMA promoting sociability and connectedness with others are well known, given the recreational popularity of MDMA and its effectiveness in therapy to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. Though, they state that researchers still have a limited understanding of how it, and other psychoactive drugs, affect social processes.
Researchers gave participants either 100 mg of MDMA or a placebo in randomized order under double-blind conditions. At the time of the expected peak, participants then engaged in a semi-structured conversation, where mood, cardiovascular and hormone levels were obtained. Most participants were in their 20s (all aged 18-35 years old), reported low-to-moderate drug use and had to have used MDMA at least once in their lives.
During the 45-minute conversations, participants were provided with small talk topics to discuss with their partner, questions like “What is your favorite holiday?” They were presented with a different set of eight questions every 15 minutes, and participants and their partners were instructed to engage in natural conversation while using the topics as prompts. If either participant didn’t want to discuss a specific topic, they could skip it. Conversations were also taped.
Measuring MDMA’s Potential for Greater Connection
Researchers found that MDMA “significantly increased ratings of liking the conversation partner and finding the conversation more enjoyable and meaningful.” MDMA also showed a trend of creating greater connection with the partner compared to placebo.
During the follow up a week later, participants reported finding the conversation after MDMA to be more meaningful that the conversation after the placebo. Participants also rated their MDMA partners as being significantly more physically attractive and warm compared to the placebo partners.
There are still questions around the specific mechanisms that create these results, though. MDMA releases oxytocin, which affects serotonin receptors, though many of the oxytocin levels were below detectable limits, making it challenging to draw finite conclusions.
“It’s likely that both something in the serotonin system independent of oxytocin, and oxytocin itself, contribute,” co-author Harriet de Wit told Medscape.
Researchers conclude that, “these findings illustrate a novel method for assessing the effects of drugs on social connection,” in that MDMA produces “strong feelings of connectedness with a stranger after a brief conversation.” They also highlight that these feelings were still present one week after having the conversations.
MDMA, Connectedness and Therapeutic Potential
They also note the implications the results have for MDMA-assisted therapy. For one, they raise the possibility that certain therapeutic effects are the result of enhanced connectedness between the patient and the therapist. “This feeling of connectedness could help patients feel safe and trusting, thereby facilitating deeper emotional exploration,” authors note.
This construct of connectedness could be valuable in designing MDMA-assisted protocols, researchers say. Researchers also question whether drugs other than MDMA, that can similarly help to facilitate the quality of the patient-therapist connection, could facilitate psychotherapy.
“More broadly, understanding the behavioral processes by which MDMA enhances social interactions is important to help therapists optimize the beneficial effects of the drug,” researchers state.