MDMA or ecstasy pills can help individuals trust more and cooperate say a team of researchers who are looking at its properties that could help treat psychological disorders. The study was published this week in the latest issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.
The team from King’s College London have found that MDMA can help raise the activity of several parts of the brain that are associated with social behaviour and empathy.
This can thus help the user understand the intentions and beliefs of others and help them become more trusting and cooperative. At present MDMA is being tried in human volunteers for treatment of Post traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Researchers add that MDMA could help subjects undergo psychotherapy sessions more successfully when they are more receptive and cooperative.
Professor Mitul Mehta from the King’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) in a statement said, “Understanding the brain activity underlying social behaviour could help identify what goes wrong in psychiatric conditions. Given the social nature of psychotherapy, understanding how MDMA affects social interaction sheds light on why the drug could become a valuable tool in treating patients.”
The team however noted that while MDMA could help the participant become more trusting and cooperative, it did not make them gullible. For example, the 20 participants were given a series of games with trustworthy people and cheaters. Half of them were put on MDMA while the other half was given placebo. They were then given tasks and games.
Those on MDMA were more cooperative but did identify people who were cheaters and did not naively trust them said Mehta. The participants also underwent MRI scans so that the researchers could understand the changes made by the drug on the brain.
One of the tasks was that a pair of participants was given a situation called the “prisoner’s dilemma”. Here two accomplices are supposedly arrested and are being interviewed separately. They are being persuaded to turn on the other against a chance to be released. If they remain silent both would serve a short sentence and if they both turn on each other they would both serve a long sentence.
The team of researchers found that those on MDMA were less likely to turn on their partners compared to those who were on placebo. However if the MDMA participants knew their partners to be selfish and untrustworthy, they tended to turn on them similar to those on placebo.
This meant that MDMA did not make them naive or gullible. However, if the partners proved themselves to be cooperative again, those on MDMA did not rat out on them and re-established their trust quickly.
Simultaneously their brain activity showed that MDMA could light up the superior temporal cortex and mid-cingulate cortex regions of their brains. These areas are important to interpret other people’s intentions and beliefs.
The main decision making area of the brain was the right anterior insula. This area was stimulated on MDMA so that participants could appraise the risks involved in a better manner.
But when faced with untrustworthy partners, this region showed a decreased activity said experts. Dr Anthony Gabay, the first author of the study said, “Using MRI scans, we were also able to see that MDMA had an impact on brain activity when processing the behaviour of others, rather than altering the decision-making process itself.”
“This research is important to build our understanding of how drugs might alter social cognition,” said Mehta. He added, “It has applications in testing novel drug therapies for mood and anxiety disorders. It also tells us which parts of the task a drug may alter, so we can target parts of behavior people are having difficulty with.” MDMA is a Schedule I drug which means that it has a high abuse potential and has no acceptable medicinal use.