New research from King's College London has found that MDMA, the main ingredient in ecstasy, causes people to cooperate better-but only with trustworthy people. In the first study to look in detail at MDMA MD cooperative behavior, the researchers also identified the changes to activity in brain regions linked to social processing

Problems with social processing are recognized as a fundamental difficulty in a range of psychiatric conditions and are not effectively treated by current medications. The results of the study, published in  The Journal of Neuroscience, may be relevant to psychiatric conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

MDMA is used by recreational users due to its social and emotional effects and is known to release neurotransmitters-chemical messengers in the brain-linked to behavior and mood. However, scientists know little about how different neurotransmitter systems in the brain contribute to complex social behavior.

Twenty healthy adult men were either given to a typical recreational dose of MDMA or a placebo pill and completed several tasks while in an MRI scanner, including the Prisoner's Dilemma. In the Prisoner's Dilemma players choose to either compete or cooperate with another player. Both players get points if they cooperate, but if one player chooses to compete they receive all the points while the other player gets nothing.

MDMA and social behavior

Senior author, Professor Mitul Mehta from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN), said: "We asked people what they thought of their opponent and, surprisingly, MDMA did not alter how trustworthy they thought the other players were." Untrustworthy players, They were rated as low on the scale, whether on MDMA or placebo, and trustworthy players were given equally high ratings. "

"Importantly, MDMA did not cause participants to cooperate with untrustworthy players any more than normal." In other words, MDMA did not make participants naively trusting others. "

When playing the Prisoner's Dilemma, participants believed that they were playing real people through a computer. In fact, the 'people' were pre-programmed computer responses which behaved in either to the trustworthy or untrustworthy manner, differing by how much they cooperated over the course of the game.

First author, Dr. Anthony Gabay who carried out the work at King's College London and is now at Oxford University, said: "When trustworthy players betrayed the participants the breach in trust had an equally  negative impact  if participants were under the influence of MDMA or However, MDMA led to a quicker recovery of  cooperative behavior and this tendency to rebuild a relationship led to higher overall levels of cooperation with trustworthy partners. "

"Using MRI scans, we were also able to see that MDMA had an impact on brain activity when processing the behavior of others, rather than altering the decision-making process itself."

Radar graph displaying scores on the 11 dimensions of the Altered States of Consciousness questionnaire. Each line in the radar represents 10% of the total possible score, inner point = 0%, outer ring = 60%. ** indicates Bonferroni-corrected p <0.05. Credit: Gabay  et al., JNeurosci (2018)

MDMA increased activity in the upper temporal cortex and mid-cingulate cortex, areas known to be important in understanding the thoughts, beliefs, and intentions of other people. When processing the behavior of trustworthy players, MDMA increased activity in the previous right insula but decreased it when processing the behavior of untrustworthy players, reflecting the different behavior shown to different opponents.

The previous right insula is important for the integration of appraisals, risk, and uncertainty.and the intentions of other people. When processing the behavior of trustworthy players, MDMA increased activity in the right anterior insula but decreased it when processing behavior of untrustworthy players, reflecting the different behavior shown to different opponents. The right anterior insula is important for the integration of appraisals, risk, and uncertainty.

Professor Mehta said: "Understanding the brain activity underlying social  behavior  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. "